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NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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The long snapper revolution in college football

Long snapping has become a true and important specialty. Programs are spending scholarships on them and the position will finally get its own yearly award, The Mannelly, in 2019.

When Blake and Reid Ferguson were growing up in Georgia, playing football in the yard with their dad, they made three goals for themselves. The first was to play the sport on Friday nights, in some of the most football-crazed stadiums in metro Atlanta. The second was to suit up for Saturdays, in the cathedrals of the Southeastern Conference. And the third and final goal was to take the field on Sundays, in the NFL.

Reid Ferguson has reached that final stage — playing with the Buffalo Bills — and Blake, a senior at LSU, seems to be on his way in following in his big brother’s footsteps.

But these boys aren’t part of a bloodline of hulking offensive lineman or speedy cornerbacks. No, the Ferguson brothers carved out a path for themselves by throwing a football quickly and accurately 15 yards between their legs.

Long snapping is their niche. And they’re damn good at it too.

“Long snapping was a way that both he and I could play,” Blake Ferguson says. “We may not be the fastest, strongest or biggest guys, but that’s an opportunity for us to have an impact on the game.”

Until about two decades ago in college football, long snapping was often a job for a reserve offensive lineman, or somebody else deep down the depth chart. In most cases, coaches would never consider spending a scholarship on a player who could only snap. At the high school level, most coaches were finding their long snapper for the season by asking for a show of hands and picking one out at a preseason practice.

Those days, however, are over.

“That’s kind of going away as coaches realize that we’re really valuable to the team,” Ferguson said. “All it takes is one bad snap to lose a big rivalry game and the season is down the drain all because of one snap. I think they’re starting to understand that you have to have a good, consistent snapper that you can trust.”

Most coaches have wised up and realized this: A mistimed or misplaced snap can create one of the most chaotic sequences in football, one that could easily cost a team the game. Why worry about all that when you can go out and find the best long snapper, offer him a scholarship, and then not have to worry about a fourth down snafu for four years?

Chris Rubio, a former UCLA long snapper and a man who the New York Times once called the “guru of the long snap,” explains it best.

“A long snapper is a fourth down upside-down quarterback, and you need him to complete 100 percent of his passes. So, why wouldn’t you burn a scholarship on that guy? The more you give a scholarship to someone you’re banking on, the more you don’t have to worry about him,” Rubio said. “On fourth down, how often do you see the head coach watching the punt team? Rarely, at best. They’re looking at the linebackers saying, ‘Go get my ball back,’ or they’re yelling at the quarterback or running back.

“Long snappers are like a Honda Accord. It’s not the flashiest car, but hell, it’s going to get you from point A to point B for the rest of your life.”

The importance of the long snapper has evolved recently in college football. It’s due to a combination of coaches getting smarter about special teams, the introduction of the spread and Aussie-style punts, and the work of Rubio and other outfits — like Kohl’s Kicking — that have made scouting and recruiting the position more accessible for college coaches.

For the class of 2019, four of Rubio’s top 11 prospects were awarded full scholarships to Power 5 programs, and so was Brady Weeks — the top long snapper according to Kohl’s — who earned a ride to Minnesota. That number will likely increase for the 2020 class.

“This year has been substantially different where we’ve seen six or so full-ride scholarships for guys that haven’t even started their senior high school season,” says Casey Casper, the director of long snapping at Kohl’s. “I haven’t seen that before. It’s wild. Usually there’s one, maybe two. The 2020 class is very talented.”

Playing a position where no one noticed them unless something went horribly wrong, long snappers are also finally getting their due in 2019. Rubio, along with Kevin Gold and former Duke long snapper Patrick Mannelly — who played 16 seasons in the NFL with the Chicago Bears — founded the Mannelly Award. A 25-player watch-list was unveiled earlier this month and the first winner — the best long snapper in college football — will be crowned on Dec. 14.

“It’s long overdue,” Rubio said. “How do you have the Lou Groza and the Ray Guy award, and yet you don’t have an award for the person that delivers them the ball? It’s insanity.”

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. While some programs have made long snapping a priority, it has remained a distant thought for others. And those are the teams who continue to be mediocre on special teams and the ones who risk a disaster on any given deep snap.

“When you have a great long snapper, you have a chance to be great on punts and field goals,” says Duke special teams coach Kirk Benedict. “If you sub it for someone that’s less than great, you’re ultimately going to see a sharp decline.”

The recruiting boom in snapping

But where do coaches go to find the best long snappers? While 247sports and Rivals didn’t have long snapper rankings until 2011, Rubio and Kohl’s have been good places to start.

Rubio’s introduction into long snapping came after his high school coach told him he couldn’t play quarterback and converted him into an offensive lineman. The coach said, “Rubio, you’re never going to touch a football a day in your life.” Ironically, he touches one almost every day now. Rubio first snapped a ball with his friend in the yard, one-handed. He was good enough to win his high school job and to walk-on at UCLA. And then a Bruins’ coach informed him that he needed to learn how to snap the ball with two hands. Rubio taught himself how do it in about two weeks. He remained the starting snapper all the way through his senior season in 1997.

Fast forward to 2004. Rubio is a sixth-grade history teacher and gets a call from Chris Sailer, his kicker at UCLA. Sailer was running kicking camps and needed someone to teach long snapping to a few players to facilitate his drills.

“It kind of just fell into place. We didn’t really think anything of it,” Rubio said. “It went from one lesson every couple of months, to several, to camps all over the place. It just kept getting bigger and bigger.”

Rubio now runs about 20 to 30 camps a year. Of the 25 players on the preseason watch-list for this season’s Mannelly Award, 15 of them worked with Rubio. Among them is Blake Ferguson.

“There’s kind of a brotherhood and fraternity aspect to what we do as long snappers and I think that was sort of created by the coach that we all go to, Chris Rubio,” Ferguson said. “I’ve been going to him since I first started snapping and he’s a big reason I’m where I’m at. The perceived value of a snapper has kind of changed. That’s a big credit to him.”

Rubio’s camps are all about instruction and exposure. He teaches snapping, but then he also rates and ranks the players on his website, tweets and blogs about them and helps them find the right fit for college. He is an advocate for the position and the craft.

Over the past 12 years, Rubio has helped more than 250 long snappers get full scholarships to college. For 2020, Rubio already has 12 snappers committed to playing Division I football. His camps cost about $355 per player.

Succeeding Ferguson at LSU after this season will be another Rubio snapper — also from Buford High School — Quentin Skinner. Thomas Fletcher is the third Rubio-trained snapper that Alabama has brought in.

Another group that runs camps for snappers is Kohl’s Kicking, founded by Jamie Kohl.

Casey Casper, a former Division III All-American long snapper at Wisconsin-Whitewater, oversees the snapping side of things for Kohl’s. During the camp season, Casper is at his busiest. He’s at camps for Kohl’s basically every weekend, and between those he’s evaluating prospects, writing up rankings and ratings, and talking with college coaches, most of which come to him with a shopping list of what they’re looking for in a long snapper.

Casper is also talking with high school prospects and helping them navigate their own recruiting process. In many ways, he’s a match-maker of sorts, pairing snappers with coaches.

“I play that middle role to help coaches and the athletes to get the best fit for the university and for the player,” Casper said. “Each program, each coordinator, each coach, has an idea of what they want.”

At Kohl’s camps, Casper is charting each snap, looking at speed, accuracy, ball rotations and consistency. He uses slow motion cameras to look at fingertip pressures and how the hand rotates off the ball. For him to hand out a 5-star rating to a prospect, that means he believes the player is a starter at a Power 5 program, worthy of a scholarship.

“We can’t miss on guys that we truly recommend,” Casper said. “We need to be able to bet our livelihoods on that athlete being successful, because that’s what these coaches need. If the player doesn’t do well, that coach could lose his job. If a coach gives a player we recommend a scholarship, and then the player fails academically or doesn’t snap well, then the coach is looking at me like, ‘What the heck, man?’ Then you lose reputation.”

Becoming the top snapper

For Rubio’s ratings, he breaks it down to speed, accuracy, mentality, consistency, spiral, size and athleticism.

If Rubio could create a long snapper in a laboratory, he would be about 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, with long arms and a large butt. The snapper would be able to handle pressure, mentally and physically, and would be able to get up the field quickly after snapping to the punter, capable of wrestling a punt returner to the turf. On field goals, the snapper should be able to handle the average collegiate rusher. For punts, the snapper — in the form of a pretty, wind-slicing spiral — should be able to deliver the ball to the punter in .75 seconds or less, and the ball should land in the “Rubio Zone” which is no lower than the mid-thigh, no higher than the lowest rib, and no wider than the armpits.

“It’s such a unique position where, you don’t have 80 plays to do your best. You don’t have a way to stay in a rhythm like a running back,” Rubio said. “You’re getting eight to 15 plays a game and if you’re not absolutely perfect, you’re fired. It’s one of the hardest positions on the field. You have to be accurate. If a quarterback throws eight touchdown passes and two interceptions, he’s an All-American. If a long snapper has eight perfect snaps and two bad ones, he’s fired. Literally, the next day.”

The finer points of long snapping are a bit esoteric and unknown for some college coaches, so they’re willing to take Casper and Rubio at their word on prospects. Others, like Duke’s Kirk Benedict, like to see for themselves.

“All of those guys do a really good job in identifying talent,” Benedict said. “We like to get to know (the snapper) and make our own opinions, but we take their opinions under consideration as well. Long snapper is one of the most important positions on the team. You have to use a scholarship on one. You’re going to get the crème de la crème of talent when you invest like that.”

It’s easy for Steve Johns — who’s been coaching at Navy for 12 seasons and before that coached at UNLV and in the JUCO and Division III ranks — to see that long snapping and recruiting has changed.

“The first time I really recruited a guy who was just a snapper and not another position was around 2002. Before that, it was just offensive lineman who could do it,” Johns said. “The quality of the snappers has gotten a lot better and they’re a lot easier to find now. It’s definitely changed in the past 15 years with the camps and the access to video.”

The third gunner

Long snappers also now have more responsibilities, especially on punts.

Many teams are going away from the NFL’s pro style punt, where the snapper and the players next to him on the front line are there to block oncoming rushers. Some teams are running a spread formation, and others are operating in a shield, where the blockers are behind the line of scrimmage and come together after the ball is snapped.

In either set-up, the long snapper’s responsibility is to snap and then get down the field and tackle the punt returner.

“We call our long snapper the third gunner,” Benedict said. “So, he’s got to be down there making an effect on the return. If he’s not, our goal is to have a guy who can impact their scheme in some way. He’s either drawing an extra defender, or he’s down there in the returner’s face.”

A decade ago, coaches were looking for long snappers built similarly to offensive lineman, guys who could absorb impact and block. But now, coaches are much more interested in the athletic snapper, the one built like a thick safety, who can get down the field after hiking.

“That would be ideal, if they were athletic enough to cover on punts,” Johns said. “We’ve had a large variety of snappers at Navy that could do both, cover and block.”

This is part of the equation when Rubio and Casper are doing their match-making for coaches and snappers. While Notre Dame runs a spread style — making the 6-foot-2, 220-pound, 2020 recruit Alex Peitsch the perfect fit — a school like Vanderbilt is running a pro system. They need a little bit more beef in their snapper, so the Commodores went out and got Wesley Schelling, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound 2020 prospect.

“They’re two totally different players. They snap a similar football, but fit different schemes,” Casper said. “The schemes have changed so much in college over the last handful of years now that players can cover downfield without the ball being punted yet. Coaches on defense are getting better and better at scheming on special teams that you have to have faster operation times now. The days of a guy just lobbing a football back there and hoping for the best are gone.

“Guys don’t get scholarships for just snapping a good football.”

Ferguson said that LSU offered him a scholarship heading into his junior season at Buford High School. Since he’s been there, the Tigers have run a spread formation. At the end of his sophomore season, when LSU faced Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, he forced a fumble when he hit the punt returner.

“My responsibility at LSU is to snap and then go get into coverage as quick as I can and hopefully make a tackle,” Ferguson said.

Still, blocking on field goals and extra points remains important too. The best snappers today, like Ferguson and Marshall’s Matt Beardall — another player on the Mannelly Award watch-list — can do both, possessing the strength to block and the athleticism to cover.

“They’re pretty similar snaps. On a punt, I’m lined up about shoulder-width with a little bit more of an athletic base,” Beardall said. “When you go to field goals, I widen my base so I can help the guards with blocking. I can snap up quicker and get my arms out to stop penetration in the A-gaps.”

Starting at a younger age

In this era of specialization in sports, some snappers are starting at very young ages. Ferguson began long snapping when he was in the sixth grade and played only at long snapper for his high school team. Beardall started as a youngster too, after watching his cousin — James Smith — snap for the Tim Tebow-era Florida teams. At camps, Casper has seen players as young as 10, while Rubio has seen them as young as 9.

“Honestly, between sixth and seventh grade is a real sweet spot to start a kid, because long snapping is so much about form. If I can get their form down first, and then puberty hits, it’s phenomenal,” Rubio said. “Those are the kids that just end up dominating their classes. It’s like building a car. You work on the whole entire car and then all of sudden you drop the V12 engine in, and that’s what puberty does for the kid.”

In 2019, Rubio’s top three guys got scholarships to Power 5 schools, and each started training with him at age 9.

Still, other long snappers can be late bloomers and carve out pretty solid careers for themselves. Michael Pifer, a senior at Navy, didn’t start snapping until his sophomore year of high school. He was an outside linebacker and wide receiver before a coach told him, “If you want to be on the field, we need guys who can long snap.”

“I just wanted to do anything I could do to help the team win and be active,” Pifer said. “No one wants to sit on the bench.”

Pifer went to Rubio, Kohl’s camps and Special Teams University. Pitt, West Virginia and Penn State extended preferred walk-on offers his way, but he chose Navy.

“I really wanted to do something that was bigger than myself,” Pifer said. “It’s everyone’s dream to play professional football, and if the opportunity presents itself, I would love that, but I’m not trying to get out of my military obligation. Commitment is a big thing to me.”

NCAA Football: Navy at Air Force Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, going to a Service Academy and then becoming a professional long snapper is by no means impossible. This past off-season, Austin Cutting of the Air Force Academy landed with the Minnesota Vikings. Former Navy snapper Joe Cardona has won a pair of Super Bowls with the Patriots and might be the best long snapper in the NFL.

To find Cardona back in 2010, Johns didn’t need the help of a recruiting service. Cardona was playing for a friend of his at a high school in San Diego.

“His father had been in the Navy too. And Joe was not even really recruited by anyone else hardly. It was kind of an easy get,” Johns said. “He can really snap the ball. The velocity was superior and the accuracy was great. He’s just a machine. And then he’s big enough to grow into where he’s not a liability in any protection. But mostly, his snapping was just so much better than a lot of other guys.”

In all the changes for long snapping — the recruiting, the techniques, the schemes, the responsibility — throwing a quality, quick, on-target and consistent ball is what remains the most crucial. It’s not something that any athlete or any football player can do. It takes tons of work and loads of practice. It is, in every sense of the word, a specialty.

And for a select group of players, it’s a skill that can get them a free ride to college and potentially a career in the NFL. For someone who isn’t the biggest, fastest or strongest, but has an unyielding love for the game, it provides a path to get on the field. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

“I think what remains across the board is schools are looking for consistency with their snaps,” Ferguson said. “You don’t want one snap at the punter’s face, one at his knees, one on his hip. You want a guy that can put it on the hip every time.

“It’s a fun job and a lot of people don’t really notice all that goes into it.”

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