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Snapping no snap

FSU's Ingram knows he has to be perfect in title game

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Posted: Thursday December 31, 1998 10:34 PM

  Ingram (with the Fiesta Bowl Queen) won't be smiling Monday if one of his snaps sails away in the Fiesta Bowl Tom Hauck/Allsport

By John Donovan, CNN/SI

TEMPE, Arizona (CNN/SI) -- Clay Ingram spent much of the summer of '96 playing catch with his dad. Bent over in an awkward near-headstand -- a position only a football long-snapper can feel comfortable in -- Ingram would spend many mornings and most afternoons snapping a football. His dad, 15 yards back, would catch his son's snaps, then throw the ball back.

And then they'd do it again.

Fifty balls. One hundred. Sometimes even more.

Five days a week. Often, they'd snap on weekends, too.

When Florida State's Ingram, now in his third year as the Seminoles' starting long-snapper, trots onto the Sun Devil Stadium turf Monday night at the Fiesta Bowl, that is what he has to think about.

Snapping the ball. Over and over and over again. Something he's done thousands of times.

If anything else enters his mind, it could turn out to be a disaster.

"That's the big one that can cause you concern, especially with the layoff we've had," says Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, whose Seminoles haven't played since November 21. "All the sudden they forget how to snap a ball, they snap it high ... all sorts of things can go wrong."

Just ask Kansas State, which messed up two punt snaps, both of which were recovered for touchdowns, in a three-point loss to Purdue in the Alamo Bowl on Tuesday.

Ingram didn't see that game, but he heard plenty about it. He knows well that the game, and the national championship that goes with it, could hinge on him doing his job correctly. Where other players can mess up a play and get away with it, a screwup by Ingram would almost certainly be disastrous.

"That's just the worst nightmare," says Ingram, a 265-pound junior from Cantonment, Florida. "Just hearing about it, you get this tight feeling in your stomach. I'd never want that to happen to anybody."

Ingram, like all other long snappers, is a critical yet often-overlooked part of the game. Like a good offensive lineman or a middle reliever in baseball, the only time he gets noticed is when he messes up.

He hasn't been perfect this season -- he's skipped a few to the punter, lofted others too high -- but none of his mistakes has been too disastrous. And he's never sailed one over the punter's head.

It helps, of course, that he snaps on field goals and extra points to Lou Groza-award winner Sebastian Janikowski, recognized as the best kicker in the nation. Janikowski missed only one of his extra points this season and made 27 of his 32 field goals.

And the Seminoles' punter, Keith Cottrell, is a good one, too, though he did have one punt blocked on a less-than-perfect snap from Ingram.

"If you start thinking about it at all, then you're in trouble," Ingram said. "That's when you mess up."

Instead, Ingram heads onto the field thinking only about hitting his target -- the holder's hands or Cottrell's right hip. But only, of course, after a little prayer on the sidelines.

Ingram is a classic case of a player who worked hard, walked on to make the team and now goes into Monday night's game with a scholarship in hand and a chance at a title ring. If he has his way, he'd be on the field Monday only for extra points and an occasional chippy field goal.

That way, both he and his coach will be able to breathe a little easier.

"Those [shaky long snaps] are the things that just scare you to death," Bowden said.

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