2021 Syracuse Football Positional Preview: Specialists
One constant for Syracuse football throughout the Dino Babers Era has been the impressive play of the special teams unit. In his five seasons, Babers has seen punter Sterling Hofrichter drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in 2020, while kicker Andre Szmyt won SU’s first Lou Groza Award as the nation’s best kicker in 2018. However, things may look a bit different this year. Justin Lustig served as Syracuse’s Special Teams Coordinator from 2017-2020, but he joined Clark Lea’s staff at Vanderbilt this winter. Blair Cavanaugh does return for a second season as the quality control coach for special teams, though. He is the only listed special teams coach on the roster.
So, let’s see how the Orange might line up on special teams in the 2021 season.
Andre Szmyt, Redshirt Junior
The kicker position is as solidified as any on the Orange roster. Andre Szmyt returns for his fourth season on the hill as one of the most consistent kickers in the country. The Illinois native won the Lou Groza Award in 2018 after going 30-of-34 on field goals and a perfect 61-of-61 on extra points. He owns a career 86.2% field goal percentage which is the highest mark in Syracuse history, and the 10th-highest of all Division I-FBS kickers since 1956. Last season, Szmyt was 9-of-11 on field goals and 23-of-24 on extra points.
James Williams, Freshman
With Nolan Cooney signing with the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted free agent, Syracuse will be looking for a new punter for a second straight season. Freshman James Williams is the favorite to win the job. Williams, a Georgia native, was a highly-rated recruit in the 2020 class as both a kicker and a punter. Rivals.com had Williams ranked as the number two kicker in the country while Kohl’s Kicking ranked him at number four among punters and number 13 among kickers. Williams did not see game action last season, and also is likely to serve as the backup to kicker Andre Szmyt.
Colby Barker, Redshirt Senior
Barker is the only other listed punter on the SU roster and is walking on in 2021. He is a native of Pittsford, New York and joins the Orange from Ohio State where he was a member of the men’s lacrosse team. Barker appeared in 17 games for the Buckeyes before entering the transfer portal. The walk-on is heading back to football for the first time since high school, and while he is a bit of an unknown, he has an opportunity at a program that has had plenty of success with punters in recent years.
Aaron Bolinsky, Junior
Bolinsky has served as the Syracuse long snapper since midway through the 2018 season when he filled in after an injury, and he has not missed a game since. Special teams operations have gone smoothly throughout his time as starter, whether he was snapping to Sterling Hofrichter or Nolan Cooney, and the 220-pound Pennsylvanian figures to start this year as well. Bolinsky has four tackles in his career and recovered a fumble in the season-opener at North Carolina last season.
Joey Kelly, Redshirt Freshman
Kelly was the backup to Bolinsky in 2019 and travelled for every game that year. The Arizona native did not appear in any games in 2019, but did appear once against Georgia Tech last year. Kelly is once again likely to serve as the backup behind Bolinsky.
Mike Midkiff, Redshirt Freshman
The other long snapper on the SU roster is Mike Midkiff, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound redshirt freshman from Colorado Springs. Like Kelly, Midkiff joined the Orange in 2019, and is yet to get on the field for Syracuse. He will likely enter the season behind Bolinsky and Kelly on the depth chart.
Trebor Pena, Freshman
Similar to the punter position, the kick and punt return job is up in the air for Syracuse. The primary returner in 2020, Nykeim Johnson, transferred to Kent State in the offseason. The only other member of the Orange with any returns in 2020 is Trebor Pena, who averaged over 32 yards on seven kick returns, although he did not return any punts. The 6-foot, 180-pound New Jersey native was also named the ACC Specialist of the Week after returning a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown against NC State last season. That was the first Syracuse kick return for a TD since 2011. Pena is a good bet to get the first shot at returning kicks in 2021. However, expect to see other depth running backs and receivers get opportunities to line up deep alongside Pena as the season goes along.