Football

Punt return was one of Syracuse’s biggest weapons last year, but it’s been a glaring weakness in 2017

Jessica Sheldon | Staff Photographer

Sean Riley, shown above in SU's loss at Clemson in 2016, has averaged 29 yards per punt return this season.

Syracuse lost a speedy and explosive wide receiver from last year’s team to graduation in Brisly Estime. He made big plays when the Orange needed him and sat atop the Atlantic Coast Conference statistical leaderboard.

And through two games this season, it’s clear SU misses him.

That description could also apply to Amba Etta-Tawo, the team’s top receiver a year ago who broke the single-season receiving yards record. How the SU offense would replace him was a top storyline in the offseason.

Estime’s loss was more understated. He led the country in punt return average (17.7), consistently putting the Orange in good field position to start drives. SU hasn’t gotten much at all from its punt return unit — only seven yards on six returns — that was a strength of last year’s team.

Speedy Syracuse safety Antwan Cordy was originally slated to become the punt returner. He often stayed late after practice during training camp to practice fielding punts. He had returned punts in high school and said he has worked on that earlier in his career, even when Scott Shafer was the head coach. He was excited for the opportunity to do it.

“I wanted to do it when Shafer was here. But you know … Bris was there and I respect that. So I just knew my time was going to come soon,” Cordy said before the Central Connecticut State game. “That’s like my specialty that nobody don’t know.” 

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Daily Orange File Photo

“I’ve definitely seen him do some things after he catches a pick,” Ervin Philips said about Cordy the same day. “I seen his high school highlights and he did that (returned punts) a lot, he was electrifying. So I’m excited.”

Cordy never got to return a punt, though. The first punt of the season was returned by No. 1 wide receiver Steve Ishmael, who had yet to return a punt at SU.

That was early in the first quarter against Central Connecticut State. Cordy got hurt and had to leave the game in the first quarter before a second punt came. He did not return, and last Saturday he revealed that he has a hairline fracture in his leg and expects to be out until the Clemson game on Oct. 13.

Enter Syracuse wide receiver Sean Riley. The 5-foot-8, 155-pound receiver was already the kick returner and took over Estime’s role of second slot receiver.

Riley had some big kickoff returns against Middle Tennessee State with a long of 48 yards, and has averaged 29 yards per return so far. But he hasn’t had the same success as a punt returner.

Riley’s returned five punts for just five yards. On some returns, such as against CCSU, he may have tried to make too many moves when nothing was there. As a result, he lost yardage. He muffed a punt midway through the third quarter against MTSU. The Blue Raiders recovered it and three plays later scored a game-tying touchdown.

“We’re going to try some more guys back there just because we don’t know what’s going on with Antwan yet,” Babers said after the CCSU game. “But we’re going to try some more guys back there but Sean’s fine. He does a good job with that stuff.”

Riley, who said he has returned punts since he was 5 years old, wasn’t told if it would be him, Cordy or Ishmael returning punts. He said he is ready on every punt and said after Week 1 that he thinks he has returned the ball well.

So far, the numbers indicate otherwise. And it’s unfair to expect anyone on the Orange to totally replicate Estime’s performance. But it’ll need to get more out of its punt return team to put the offense in better field position, and in turn, put the team in a better chance to win.

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