There are plenty of offensive and defensive details for Syracuse’s Dino Babers to stew over as the season opener nears.
That’s before even getting to the volatility that comes with any attempt to put points on the board with a kick: a snap-to-hold-to-kick procedure so interwoven that even a minor error can lead to a debacle. And for the majority of Atlantic Coast Conference coaches this year, there’s the added variable of having to replace veteran starters in those critical roles.
For Babers, that means replacing a former Lou Groza Award winner for the nation’s best kicker in Andre Szmyt along with a team captain and multi-year starter in long snapper Aaron Bolinsky.
“Yeah, you might get a gray hair or two worrying about that stuff overnight and you probably wouldn’t sleep very well,” Babers said this summer with a chuckle.
Across the ACC, 10 of 14 teams are set to replace at least one starter in those roles for Week 1, accounting for 16 of 42 positions (38%). Syracuse, Duke, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech have to replace two. No. 9 Clemson, the preseason ACC favorite, is set to have new starters at all three spots.
By comparison, No. 8 Florida State, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Virginia have stability with three projected returning starters. Those include kickers who ranked among the Bowl Subdivision leaders in the Panthers’ Ben Sauls (20 field goals) and the Yellow Jackets’ Gavin Stewart (92.3%, 11 of 12).
Roster turnover typically centers on who is throwing passes or deflecting them away. There’s less discussion on whether a new long snapper working in near anonymity can repeatedly put the ball on target. Or if the holder has the steady hands to cleanly catch the snap, especially if having to make a lineup-reversing adjustment from a left- to a right-footed kicker.
It creates fertile territory for mistakes that could decide games, maybe even shake up the ACC title chase as a result.
“If a quarterback throws a ball a little to the left, the receiver can adjust and make a play,” said ACC Network analyst Eric Mac Lain, an offensive lineman on Clemson’s national runner-up team in 2015. “If that snap’s a little to the left, that’s a damn disaster. … So the accuracy, the precision, the timing of everything, it’s a full-blown operation.”
The details can be minute.
Boston College’s preseason battle to replace long snapper Gunner Daniel has extended into Week 1, with Penn State graduate transfer Michael Wright and returnee Jackson Gugni atop the depth chart. Special teams coordinator Matt Thurin said their work includes trying to control the location of the laces by the time the ball reaches returning holder Sam Candiotti, who must ensure those laces face the goalposts for the kick.
“If it’s a perfect lace, the holder doesn’t have to hold,” Thurin said. “So if a guy catches it and it’s off laces, sometimes you can’t spin it all the way because you don’t have time. … It’s wild, right?
“All three have got to work real well together and everybody’s got to be on their point of what they do,” he said. “Any missed lace, any missed spot on the hold or any missed plant foot or contact point — if anything’s off — it could affect it either way. It takes time.”
N.C. State veteran long snapper Joe Shimko understands that. He’s working with a new holder in Caden Noonkester to set up Western Kentucky transfer kicker Brayden Narveson, who is replacing last year’s Groza winner in Christopher Dunn. He’s had to adjust his aiming point for the 6-foot-6 Noonkester, who is four inches taller than predecessor Shane McDonough.
“The kicker doesn’t really matter for me,” said Shimko, a fifth-year player who has never delivered a bad snap in 475 career attempts. “It’s more the holder. This is my third holder now, so all of them are a little different, just looking at them in their stance or certain little things they do can kind of throw me off a little bit. But as many reps as I can get with them, it’ll fix whatever issues would be going on.”
At Syracuse, Babers said preseason plans included doing everything possible to test his auditioning unit. That meant tactics like having teammates splash the kicker with water as a distraction before kicking in front of the entire team. Or having up to 15 players rush the kick instead of the usual 11.
By Monday, the Orange’s depth chart listed sophomore kicker Brady Denaburg and Fordham transfer long snapper Tom Callahan alongside defensive back Justin Barron as the returning holder for this weekend’s game against Colgate.
“Nothing replaces getting out there in front of the crowd,” Babers said. “And we’re looking forward to it. I really believe that we’re going to be fine in all three areas.”
AP Sports Writer Jimmy Golen contributed to this report.