In what was arguably the most memorable moment from the 2009 season, true freshman Ryan Lichtenstein booted a 41-yard field goal to beat Northwestern. Lichtenstein’s kick is just one example of the impact special teams can have on a game.
“You can look at any game and just know that if certain plays on special teams go a different way, then that will change the outlook of the game,” said senior punter Rob Long. “You can have a kick return for a touchdown or a kick returner fumble the ball at the one-yard line and lose it. You’re getting two different results, and each one is going to impact the game drastically.”
Last year, the Orange entered the season with a lot of question marks in their special teams unit. This year, Syracuse returns a lot of experience, but even more importantly, a lot of depth.
Long – a candidate for the Ray Guy award which honors the nation’s top punter – heads a talented group that is looking to make an impact in 2010, and swing a few more games in the Orange’s favor.
The senior averaged nearly 44 yards a punt in 2009 to rank 15th in the nation. While Long admits the recognition is neat, he said he is more focused on helping the team improve than in garnering personal accolades.
“We’re looking to improve upon last year and really make a difference … especially in the punting game,” Long said. “I would take pride in that, really trying to get the most out of everybody on that team and really use it to our advantage.”
Long said one of his favorite things to do is use his punts to pin other teams deep in their own territory. He placed 25 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line in 2009, and is hoping to be even better this year.
“I think if I can really help out that defense and pin a team back and let coach Shaffer and the defense unleash their fury on an offense, than it’s going to be a big help,” he said.
When is comes to kicking the ball, the Orange return one of the biggest surprises of 2009 in Lichtenstein. After walking on to the team last fall, Lichtenstein ended up earning a scholarship and the starting kicking job by opening day. He connected on 13-of-17 field goals during the season.
“I think it’s a very difficult position,” SU head coach Doug Marrone said about being a kicker. “You have to have a confidence about yourself and you can’t let your nerves get to you. I think he stepped in there and did a great job for us.”
The Orange also signed freshman kicker Ross Krautman to push Lichtenstein and provide some much needed depth at that position for 2010.
In the return game, Syracuse will be highlighting a couple new faces in freshmen Tyson Gulley and Steve Rene. Long said the duo will provide an element to the return game that the Orange have been lacking in recent years.
“I don’t know if it’s any secret or not, but they’re quick, they’re agile and they’re fast,” Long said of the pair. “They’re going to cause some issues for some teams, they’re going to bring a dynamic return to Syracuse and really have some holes opened up for them.”
Another returning specialist in 2010 is redshirt senior Max Leo. He will again be handling the long-snapping duties for Syracuse after walking on to the team in 2007. With so much experience, the special teams unit is looking to make a big impact this season.
“We’re obviously looking to improve on last year and what we did last year, and just build off that,” Long said. “We had a little bit of an issue last year with just the depth on the team, which I think showed itself on special teams. We’re really strong now, and I think we’ve got a lot more depth.”
Syracuse University punter Rob Long talks on his cell phone during the 2010 football media day at the Carrier Dome in August. (Photo: Andrew Hida)