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Syracuse Doing the Little Things

By Jim Johnson
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Syracuse is controlling the things it can control and making up in discipline and attention to detail, whatever they lack in relative talent.

Syracuse will never be able to recruit like Texas or Southern Cal or Penn State, but the Orange are ahead of all of them, and all but twelve teams in the nation, in the most recent AP Poll.

That’s because Syracuse is controlling the things it can control, doing the little things, and making up in discipline and attention to detail, whatever they lack in relative talent.

There may be no better example of this than their performance on special teams, thus far. It seems like, at least to a greater degree than offense or defense, special teams success is not a matter of X’s and O’s or Jimmy’s and Joe’s as simply effort. That’s not to diminish the contributions of players the caliber of Andre Szmyt or Sterling Hofrichter, but there has to be a reason that Clemson, last year, or Alabama, seemingly every year, are just unmitigated disasters in that facet of the game.

Clearly, programs like that can get away with it, but Syracuse is thriving as a result of it.

Szmyt has drilled all 45 of his PATs and 23 of his 25 field goal attempts, the sixth highest conversion percentage in the country, all the while averaging over a full attempt more per game than anyone ahead of him. Based on his output, relative to the expected output from each of his kicks, distance-wise, Szmyt is netting about .6 more points per try than the average kicker -- the 10th highest disparity in all of the FBS.

Hofrichter, meanwhile, currently sits in the top 25 in yards per punt at just over 44, with 21 fair catches and 17 balls downed inside the 20-yard line on 48 attempts. Coupled with solid coverage, he is averaging 40.4 net yards per punt and the team sits in the top 20 in punt success rate.

Even so, his contributions on kickoffs are arguably even greater. Hofrichter and the unit are averaging 64.3 yards per kickoff, good for 12th in college football, with a top 30 touchback rate, and the second lowest allowed success rate in the country.

And, though the return game as a whole is not as elite, Syracuse has two punt return touchdowns, something just 13 other teams can say, rank in the top 20 in yards per punt return, and 52nd in punt return success rate, and despite ranking 99th in yards per kick return, the Orange are 11th in kick return efficiency.

Thanks in large part to this oft-forgotten phase of the game, life is much easier for the two more talked about sides of the ball. Dino Babers’ group ranks 7th in the country in defensive starting field position, with opposing offenses taking over, on average, at their own 25.6 yard line, and first overall in offensive field position, at the 36.2.

Then, more importantly, they’re taking advantage of those short fields, ranking 26th with an average of 4.21 points per non-garbage time drive that starts within 60 yards of the end zone. Even more than the end result, however, are the means in which those results are achieved.

Again, it comes down to controlling the things that are controllable. Big plays can sometimes be hard to come by, and even efficiency can be diminished by certain defensive schemes, but Syracuse is taking care of the ball, turning it over at the 26th lowest rate on 7.9% of their possessions, avoiding negative rushing plays, getting stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage just 13.3% of the time, the 7th lowest rate, and avoiding uncomfortable third downs, moving the chains on first or second down 78.3% of the time, the 6th highest rate.

Then, on the flipside, their own third down defense has been excellent. They rank 7th in allowed third down success rate, 8th on third and mediums, and number one in the country in third and long scenarios.

While traditional powers, even within the conference, like Florida State and Miami flounder, Syracuse is firing on all cylinders.

They say hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. Well, Dino Babers and company aren’t just outworking their peers, they’re working smarter than them.

The results speak for themselves.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP