Football beat writers David Wilson, Stephen Bailey and Trevor Hass are counting down the days until Syracuse football opens its season against Penn State on Aug. 31. They’ll show you what you can expect from each position as the Orange moves toward its Atlantic Coast Conference debut, with the top position showcased in The DO’s annual season preview guide to be released on Aug. 29.
Last season Jeremiah Kobena handled more than half of the kickoffs sent Syracuse’s way, proving a reliable return man with flashes of explosiveness.
Ritchy Desir struggled as Syracuse’s main punt returner after Steve Rene was sidelined for the season with an upper-body injury on Nov. 20. Desir averaged a mere 5.2 yards per return, but then head coach Doug Marrone didn’t have a viable replacement.
This year Kobena and Desir, both juniors, are back as the front-runners with sophomore Wayne Morgan starting beside Kobena on kick returns.
However, SU head coach Scott Shafer indicated that other players could see an increased role as return specialists. Some of those players include Rene, an experienced senior, and Brisly Estime, an intriguing freshman.
Key returning players
Kobena dazzled the crowd in Syracuse’s 2012 season opener against Northwestern, racking up more than 20 yards per kick return. He amassed 123 yards, including a 37-yarder, in SU’s upset win over No. 9 Louisville later in the season.
Desir returned 20 punts for a total of 105 yards in 2012. His most productive game came against Connecticut when he averaged nearly 10 yards per return.
Rene returned both punts and kicks last season, and will likely do the same this year. He returned nine kicks and eight punts in 2012 as his kick return average hovered around 21 yards and his shiftiness posed a problem for opposing special teams units.
Shafer said he’s pleased with his returners, but that he’s always looking to see if players can emerge and steal spots from current starters.
“We do have some good options there,” Shafer said.
Reasons for optimism
Kobena’s proven he has the speed and cutting ability to be a very good return man. Now with some experience, the 6-foot, 182-pound wide receiver has returned more kicks than all other Syracuse speedsters combined – including Morgan, Prince-Tyson Gulley and Ashton Broyld.
During his freshman season, Kobena finished the season with 1,027 kickoff return yards — second on the Orange’s single-season record list.
Shafer will rely on Kobena’s speed and Rene’s deceptiveness, but he said he isn’t ruling out the idea of incoming freshmen, junior college transfers and other returning players fielding kicks.
Morgan, at 5 feet, 10 inches and 197 pounds, may get a chance to prove himself right away. The 5-foot-9, 176-pound Estime will have to work his way up.
He’s listed as a wide receiver on Syracuse’s roster, but said kick returns are the most lethal element of his game. He said he’s just as comfortable returning kicks or punts as he is nearly anywhere on a football field.
“We’re going to try to get as many catches, see who catches it the most comfortable,” Shafer said, “and then get it on tape with guys coming at them.”
Reasons for concern
Desir has speed, but he struggled to break free for significant gains last season, only returning three punts for more than seven yards.
Though Syracuse has a potpourri of potential backups to Desir, Kobena and Rene, none of those backups are proven. If either Desir or Kobena gets injured, the Orange would be in a precarious situation.
However, Desir has put on 19 pounds since his freshman year, going from the fourth-lightest player on the team (behind kickers Ross Krautman and Ryan Lichtenstein and cornerback Jaston George) to someone Shafer hopes can absorb contact and break tackles.
Desir said he isn’t worried about who will return kicks for the Orange, he’s just eager to prepare for the season.
“I’m just excited to play this game,” Desir said. “I really don’t know. Only thing we can do is just prepare.”
Between Kobena and Desir, Syracuse has two players with two years of varsity experience. Both players have talent, but neither is elite. Morgan and Rene will be key as Kobena and Desir’s backups.
Come back to DailyOrange.com on Thursday to find out which position comes in at No. 9.