Once a long shot, a few long snappers are earning scholarships
Fort Lauderdale, Fla. longsnapper Jordan Cowart signed with Notre Dame
Snappers take part in only 10-15 plays a game, must be perfect every time
Some colleges have revised their thinking in recruiting a long snapper
Dan Stacey sent between 30 and 40 VHS tapes to college football programs as a senior at Father Ryan High in Nashville, Tenn., in 1997. Each tape featured Stacey with his head between his knees, rocketing the football to the punter or the holder. "I got a lot of letters back," Stacey said. "Most of them said no." Had Stacey, who eventually walked on at Tennessee and started at long snapper from 2000-01, been born 12 years later, he might not have spent so much time at the post office. College coaches might have called him.
Instead of hustling for a walk-on spot, Stacey might have received a scholarship. Last week, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. snapper Jordan Cowart signed with Notre Dame, and San Clemente, Calif. snapper Evan Jacobsen signed with New Mexico. Neither player will be expected to play another position. They will only snap, and, with any luck, they'll be as anonymous as Collin Carroll, Virginia Tech's scholarship snapper.
"Long snappers usually don't get noticed," Carroll said, "unless they screw up."
For Chris Rubio, each passing year brings more calls from college coaches looking for a reliable snapper. Rubio, a former UCLA snapper who teaches the art of the long snap to players at the kicking academy run by former Bruins punter Chris Sailer, is the nation's most plugged-in snapping coach. And Rubio can see a day soon when most Football Bowl Subdivision schools sign a long-snapper to a scholarship. "It's something they don't have to worry about anymore," Rubio said. "They say, 'I can offer this kid. I can tell he's good. I don't have to worry about it for four years.' It's fantastic."
It makes sense. While a snapper may take part in only 10-15 plays a game, he must be perfect every time. If the left guard misses a block, his team might lose two yards. If a linebacker misses a tackle, the ball carrier may gain an extra five yards. If the snapper sails a ball over the punter's head and out of the back of the end zone, he just gave up two points. If he bounces a snap to the holder during a field goal attempt, he just cost his team three points and valuable field position.
That's why some college coaches have revised their thinking when it comes to choosing a snapper. For the past few decades, snappers typically have come from the student body. If they were recruited at all, coaches invited snappers to attend walk-on tryouts. In recent years, coaches have essentially promised a walk-on roster spot and a scholarship once the snapper proves himself for a season. That's how Missouri landed Beau Brinkley, who started as a true freshman walk-on in 2008. It's also how Indiana got a commitment from Josh Keyt, a snapper from Roachdale, Ind. Assuming all goes well, Keyt will walk on and redshirt the 2009 season and go on scholarship in 2010. Until he goes to Bloomington, he'll practice. "My basement is 14 yards exactly," Keyt said, referring to the distance of a punt snap.
Some coaches have gone a step further. Some appreciate the value of allotting one scholarship every four years -- essentially, one out of about every 100 scholarships a program gives -- to a snapper. "It's basically, they want to scholarship the kid, and they don't even want to talk to him for four years," Rubio said.
Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis echoed that sentiment last week when he discussed the signing of Cowart. Cowart, a 6-foot-2, 220-pounder, never made a bad snap at St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the nation's top high school programs. Cowart's punter, Ben Turk, also signed with Notre Dame last week.
"One thing I've been very concerned with is our long snapping situation," Weis said. "So we went out and got a long snapper. ... He's a good athlete. I can't see any reason why when we open up on Sept. 7, he shouldn't have a legitimate shot of being our snapper and staying there for the next four years. I'm hoping that to be the case. We don't give anything to anyone, but that's what we are counting on."
Unlike a top-rated tailback, the best snappers still don't have a wide variety of scholarship opportunities because only a limited number of schools are seeking snappers each year. Most hope they have an experience similar to Christian Yount, who received scholarship offers from Boston College and UCLA as a junior at Tesoro High (Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.) in 2005. Yount chose UCLA and started immediately. If the snappers perform once they reach college, they might wind up like former San Diego State snapper Tyler Schmitt, a scholarship signee and four-year starter who was picked by the Seattle Seahawks in the sixth round of the 2008 NFL draft.
Virginia Tech's Carroll and New Mexico's Jacobsen had more typical recruiting experiences. Carroll, a 6-3, 240-pounder from Hopkins (Minnetonka, Minn.) who started in 2008 as a redshirt freshman, had plenty of interest as a walk-on, but he wanted a scholarship. "I've got six younger siblings, and my parents are going to have to pay for college," he said. "I was praying for a scholarship, but I didn't know what to expect."
Carroll had a scholarship offer from Eastern Michigan, and he was close to accepting when his phone rang one day. "I knew it would be an honor to work with Coach [Frank] Beamer, but I didn't really know if that was a realistic goal or not until Coach Beamer called me," Carroll said. "It was just a miracle. He said, 'Hey, this is Coach Beamer.' I almost dropped the phone." Carroll visited Virginia Tech the following week. On the trip, he immediately accepted Beamer's offer of a scholarship.
Jacobsen, the No. 1 player in Rubio's snapper rankings for the class of 2009, also had to wait to get an offer. He was recruited early by New Mexico and by Washington, but he figured those opportunities would vanish when coaches Rocky Long and Tyrone Willingham were fired. "Oh great," Jacobsen remembered thinking. "Every school that recruits me, the staff is going to get fired."
But not long after Mike Locksley took over at New Mexico, Jacobsen received a call from assistant Toby Neinas, who had coached Schmitt at San Diego State. The Lobos offered a scholarship, and Jacobsen accepted. "It was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders," Jacobsen said.
While the limited number of suitors alters the recruiting experience for snappers, they do face some of the same issues as position players. Just as a school that runs the option wouldn't sign a drop-back quarterback, a school that uses the spread punt formation -- three linemen stationed between the snapper and the punter -- wouldn't take a bulky snapper. A spread punt team would want a leaner, faster snapper who can tackle, because spread punt snappers typically release immediately to chase the returner. A team that uses a more traditional punt formation would want a sturdier snapper who could block oncoming rushers. Jacobsen learned quickly which schools used which formation in his discussions with coaches. "Boise State and Florida were looking for a downfield runner," Jacobsen said. "Washington, New Mexico and Georgia Tech, they were just looking for the perfect snap."
If the current crop of scholarship snappers delivers enough perfect snaps, it likely will blaze a trail for even more opportunities in the future as coaches try to reduce their headaches by one. "You don't need to offer a scholarship to a long snapper every year or even every two years," Virginia Tech's Carroll said. "But every four years or so, you need a long snapper. I'm really optimistic about how long snappers seem to be getting more recognition and more credit."