Position Preview: Special Teams

CuseNation.com previews Syracuse's 2014 special teams unit inside.

Depth Chart

Kicker: Ryan Norton
Punter: Riley Dixon
Kickoffs: Riley Dixon
Holder: Darius Kelly
Returners: Prince-Tyson Gulley, Ervin Philips, George Morris, DeVante McFarlane, Brisly Estime, Ritchy Desir

2013 Statistics

Norton: 10-15 field goals, 44-yard long
Dixon: 75 punts, 3,161 yards, 42-yard average, 75-yard long, 21 inside the 20
Estime: 4 punt returns, 126-yards, 31-yard average, 70-yard long, 5 kickoff returns, 89-yards, 18-yard average, 21-yard long
Desir: 27 punt returns, 111-yards, 4-yard average, 23-yard long
Morris: 15 kickoff returns, 294-yards, 19-yard average, 35-yard long
McFarlane: 10 kickoff returns, 184-yards, 18-yard average, 24-yard long
Gulley: 6 kickoff returns, 154-yards, 25-yard average, 49-yard long

What We Know

With the loss of Ross Krautman before training camp started, Ryan Norton became the starting kicker. He was inconsistent last season but looked much better in training camp this year. Still, he is a question mark going into the season.

Riley Dixon emerged as a star from the punting position last season. He had 15-punts of over 50-yards last season including a school record 75-yarder. Dixon will be a strength this season.

The loss of Charley Loeb will go unnoticed by most, but he was the primary holder on field goal attempts. He often made up for bad snaps with his ability to catch the ball and place it quickly. Darius Kelly has experience holding in high school and junior college and will take over for Loeb this year. He has big shoes to fill.

The return game has some potentially dynamic players in Brisly Estime and Ervin Philips. Estime showed flashes of being a homerun threat as a punt returner last season. He set up the game-winning touchdown in the Texas Bowl with a 70-yard return late in the fourth quarter. He is dangerous in the open field and has elite speed.

Ritchy Desir will also return punts for Syracuse this season. Scott Shafer likes his steadiness as a guy who never drops the ball when fielding punts.

The kick return game was where Syracuse really struggled, ranking 94th nationally in that category. Shafer likes to use running backs as his primary returners, which means Gulley, Morris and McFarlane could all see time back there.

The intriguing player is the freshman Ervin Philips. He has more explosiveness than the other options and could give the Orange a dynamic threat back there. Look for Philips to get some opportunities.

Biggest Question

How consistent can Ryan Norton become? The loss of Ross Krautman hurt Syracuse last season. In fact, it may have cost them the game against Pittsburgh. His ability to consistently hit field goals this season, especially inside the 40-yard threshold, could be critical in a few games.

Keep an eye on how Norton responds early on. If he misses some, walk-ons Cole Murphy and Alex Hodgkinson could get an opportunity to show what they can do.

Season Outlook

For the first time in years, Syracuse has multiple dynamic return options. How much will Syracuse utilize Estime on special teams, however? The Orange do not want to get him hurt but know he is their best option for the big play. Dixon is a big weapon as a punter while Norton remains a question mark. A lot of games can be won or lost on special teams and Syracuse has a solid unit entering 2014 but still has questions to answer.

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