Before the fans can cheer after a place kicker splits the uprights on a game-winning field goal or a punter pins the return team deep in its own territory, it all starts with one man – the long snapper.
“Being back there as a punter or kicker, wondering where the ball is going to go before you punt or kick is not a real good feeling,” said former NFL and NCAA special teams coordinator Gary Zauner. “The vital man in the kicking game is the long snapper. Every good punt and kick starts with a good snap, and a lot of times when there is a screw up, the snap’s not on target or the laces aren’t right.”
Zauner, who has coached under NFL coaching legends Mike Ditka and Bill Walsh, believes long snapping is an art form. He has written books, hosts a website and runs camps throughout the country that are all dedicated to helping high school and college level players make a professional career out of long snapping.
Hall of Fame football coach George Allen, who Zauner also worked under, coached in the NFL for 20 years and not only introduced the first special teams coach in 1969, but he also added a player whose only purpose was to long snap.
“All the stats are just astronomical since every team (in the NFL) has a long snapper on it’s roster,” Zauner said.
From 1938 to 1968, the NFL’s kickers with the highest success rate on field goals attempts averaged 65 percent accuracy. Since, the top kickers have connected on more than 90 percent of their attempts.
Sophomore long snapper Josh Latham said he came to Sacramento State with hopes of playing linebacker. He ending up switching to defensive end, followed by a brief stint at fullback, but he never played in a game at any of those positions.
Latham had long snapped while playing at Foothill High School in Redding, just like brother had before him. After getting lost in the roster shuffle at Sac State, he did what he had to do to get on the field and began long snapping.
“Long snapping doesn’t really get a lot of recognition, but it’s something you have to be consistent with, and it’s something the coaches don’t want to have to think about, either,” he said. “The ball has got to be in the same spot every single time, and people don’t really know your name until you mess up – so hopefully no one knows me for a while.”
Latham’s choice to take a position not known for getting all the glory has paid off. He gets playing time on every field goal, point after touchdown and punt. The long snapper with three career tackles said he knows what the job entails and he does it.
Being able to long snap could be the difference between seeing the field and riding the bench. During recruiting and scouting at both the college and pro ranks, this specialized skill has added longevity to a player’s career.
“We’ve had a few guys come out of [Sac State] and get opportunities,” said Tight Ends and Special Teams coach Fred Kelley. “It’s a trade that if guys know how to do it, there is a tremendous value. We look at that in recruiting. It’s a huge value that guys have and it’s overlooked until something goes wrong.”
Lonie Paxton, who graduated from Sac State, made a 10-year NFL career out of long snapping with the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos. In 2001, he snapped the ball for the go-ahead field goal in the AFC Championship game when the Patriots beat the Raiders en route to the franchise’s first Super Bowl win. After Adam Vinatieri’s famous kick, Paxton was seen celebrating by making a snow angel while on national TV.
While some long snappers have shown more promise than others, Kelley said there are basics all players must have before taking the position.
“The main thing is the snap right there in his hips,” Kelley said. “What you’ll see is the grooves in the ground. Those guys slide their feet across the ground and you can tell when they’ve been snapping on the grass. You really look for seeing those hips snap down and obviously the placement of the hands, because you want the hands on top of the ball.”
Zauner said when he is coaching professional and college players he looks for a good stance, but there are a number of movements that have to be fluid.
“It’s called elbow thrust and slide. When [the long snapper] is throwing the ball back, his feet move with the snap and everything moves back toward the target: the body moves back, the ball moves back and hopefully it goes in a straight line. This allows guys who have protection (responsibility) to get back into the protection,” Zauner said.
Long snapping is a multifaceted skill set. Zauner said guys who play the position must have the blocking ability of a lineman, the toughness and tackling skills of a linebacker and the accuracy of a quarterback.
In order to avoid a situation like the one portrayed in the ‘90s hit movie “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” where the former fictional Miami Dolphins kicker Ray Finkle used the line ,“Laces out, Dan,” as he blamed former NFL great Dan Marino for a missed field goal in the Super Bowl – Zauner said long snappers are now learning a skill called “Perfect Laces.”
The technique focuses on having the laces placed outward toward the uprights as the holder receives the ball from the long snapper without having to make an effort the ensure proper placement. This will reduce the chance of the kicker placing his foot on the laces as he or she kicks, which could cause the ball to inaccurately sail wide right or wide left.
The art of long snapping is a lonely, self-motivated job, and even with all the importance the position holds, coaching staffs overlook the snapper most of the time, Zauner said.
“Nobody understands what he does,” Zauner said. “[Coaches] just expect him to be perfect.”