By Stephanie Dattilo Taylor (A former ESPN.com and ABC Sports writer and researcher who now works as corporate lawyer, Taylor founded CollegeFootballGirl.com in 2010 to educate newfound fans on the basics of the game and enhance the knowledge of long-time fans. The NFF periodically reproduces her reports, helping further her mission of creating a greater understanding of the game.)
The Long Snapper. No, it’s not a type of fish. It’s actually a football position and it’s one that is discussed so infrequently in game coverage that the casual fan might not know what it means. My conversation with UCLA long snapper and NFL prospect Kevin McDermott began with his admission that in every interview he’s ever done, “the first question is, ‘what is long-snapping?” And in talking to McDermott, I realized that this little known position might just be one of the best jobs you can get; the only problem is that it is also one of the hardest.
It doesn’t require freakish athleticism, size or speed that other positions do so it could almost be the spot for the “normal” guy on the field (assuming normal means 6’5, 250 lbs). However, it does require that the player be the absolute best at what he does because there are only 32 total roster positions available in the NFL. Even for a player who was one of the top players in the nation in college at his position, breaking into that top 32 in the NFL is challenging (see examples JaMarcus Russell, Brady Quinn, Ted Ginn Jr., Darrius Heyward-Bey, Knowshon Moreno and Tim Tebow).
But nonetheless, the long snapper position is often overlooked to the benefit of those savvy and smart players who take advantage of the chance to make it into the NFL by starting to focus on long snapping in high school and following through on it at the next level. McDermott educates us on everything we wanted to know about long snapping, including some tips that might give you an advantage, whether you’re looking to break into the NFL or just looking to impress someone with your knowledge of football.
Naturally I didn’t want to disappoint McDermott so I had to begin the interview by asking the question…what is long-snapping?
McDermott: My job is to snap the ball on punts and field goals. I snap to the punter when he kicks the ball down the field. And then I snap it to the holder, who then puts it down on field goals and on extra points for the kicker.
CFB GirL: Just to make sure we’re current on the specialized terms, what is the difference between the short, deep and long-snapper? Is it relevant or just a technicality?
McDermott: It’s relevant in college because some teams have a deep snapper and a short snapper. A short snapper is the snapper for field goals. A deep snapper is the snapper for punts. Most teams have one guy that does both so they just call him the long snapper. But some teams have a guy who can’t do both because he isn’t good at one of them, so they have both a deep and a short snapper.
CFB Girl: But they don’t do this in the NFL…why?
McDermott: Correct. Because there are so few roster spots, they’re not going to waste a roster position on someone who can’t do both. If you’re going to play in the NFL, you have to do both and you have to do both very well.
CFB Girl: Obviously your primary job is to snap the ball, but what other responsibilities do you have?
McDermott: My responsibility is protection. That’s really the other thing I have to take care. When a punt is occurring, the opposing team is trying to return it, but they’re also trying to block the punt. And one of the biggest plays in a game that can change momentum is if the ball doesn’t even get off– that’s a big field position swing. Right after I snap the ball, my job is to get my head out of between my legs and block anywhere from one to two people who are trying to rush the punt. Thankfully I have the pleasure of knowing the snap count so I get a little bit of a head start, but not much. I have to hold my ground for 2 to 3 seconds. And then I cover down the field and try to make the tackle. On field goals, I have to snap the ball and then stay firm on the line and not let anyone jump over me or push me back, because if I fall backwards then everyone can just run towards the kick and block it.
CFB Girl: On a punting play, describe how you instantly switch from offense to defense.
McDermott: It’s an offensive play first because you have the ball first, but in two to three seconds, that offensive play is over and immediately you become a defender essentially and you have to run down in a coverage lane.
CFB Girl: Can you expand on the coverage lane because when most people hear the word “lane” in sports they might think of something more established such as the lanes on a track or in a pool?
McDermott: The field is broken up into 11 coverage lanes, including the punter, who also has a coverage lane. You have to make sure you stay in your lane because if you get out of position, that’s the perfect play for a runner to get through. The whole point of the coverage lane is to contain the returner. You want to funnel him into the middle of the field where there are more people to make the tackle. The worst thing that can happen is for the returner to get outside the coverage lane. The person who is on the end of the punt formation has to keep everything inside of him.
CFB Girl: And how does your opponent get you out of your coverage lane?
McDermott: They don’t have to mess up all of the coverage lanes; they just need to get one or two guys out of position and that’s the way to get through the line. They will have two people double team one guy to try to get him out of position. Or they will start the return one way and then switch back the other way to make people over-commit and get out of their coverage lanes to go chase him. There are different techniques, but those are two of the most common.
CFB Girl: Other than these defensive responsibilities, how does your position differ from a Center?
McDermott: (laughing) The Center has a little bit more girth than I do. I weight about 245 pounds. He weighs about 310 pounds. I actually used to play tight end. Snapping was something that I did for my high school team, just kind of on the side. As I’ve gone higher and higher in the ranks of football, I wasn’t athletically gifted enough to excel at tight end, but I had a knack for long snapping and I turned it into a career.
CFB Girl: That’s an incredible turn of events. How did it go from a side job to a career?
McDermott: I’m lucky in the fact that most of the people in high school snapping were those who played another position and didn’t follow through to keep learning the position once they got to the next level. I just kept at it and my size is something that the pro’s really like because I can deal with the size of NFL players on the punt and the field goal teams so they like that a lot.
CFB Girl: What makes you have a knack for long snapping?
McDermott: Consistency. They say that a punter wants to be able to stand back there and only worry about his punt. If a punter has to stand back there and worry about the ball getting to him then he’s not going to be able to do his job as well as he needs to. If you have a consistent long snapper, it makes life easier and my ability comes from being able to be consistent.
CFB Girl: Why is this a position that NFL teams so rarely pick in the rookie draft?
McDermott: They aren’t really drafted because there are only 32 in the entire league. There aren’t any backups. It’s a position where no matter what you’re going to be making a league minimum. I think guys who have been in the league 10 years are still making the minimum for a 10-year vet. There’s a need, but they know they can sign people as free agents after the draft ends and they will still get their choice of the long snapper they want. It’s all about demand.
CFB Girl: What is the league minimum?
McDermott: The league minimum right now is $405,000 a year for rookies. And then each year it goes up. I’m not exactly sure what percentage it is each year—it may go close to the $500,000 range your second year. And yes, it’s crazy to think that’s a salary for snapping a ball in between your legs.
[The official league minimum salaries for 2013 are 1st year= $405k, 2nd year= $480k, 3rd year= $555k, 4th-6th year= $715k, 7th-9th year= $840k, 10th+year= $940k and these will all go up by $15,000 in 2014].
CFB Girl: YOU ARE INTERVIEWING RIGHT NOW FOR YOUR VERY FIRST JOB OUT OF COLLEGE AND YOU ARE LOOKING TO MAKE $405K PER YEAR?!? What do your non-football friends say about that…such as the ones who are merely interviewing for jobs at accounting firms and investment banks?
McDermott: It’s frustrating for them. It’s true—I’m in a unique position and I hope to take full advantage of it. I consider myself very lucky. But, I’ve worked hard to get here. My friends are happy for me, but they are jealous of the fact that their first job offers out of college are not near that and they give me a hard time about that.
CFB Girl: What preparation have you done for your position and for a future NFL career?
McDermott: You have to lift a lot. Work out. Run. You have to be in good shape. I only play probably average 10-15 plays per game, but in those plays I’m still going up against the world’s best athletes. So I have to be in shape, I have to be strong and I have to be agile. There are specific workouts you do to help with quickness and arm speed. For a snapper, arm speed is a big deal and being able to snap it faster and more consistent. And then you just have to snap. You just have to work on your technique. I video tape my snaps a lot and watch video of myself from the season and you just have to always be improving.
CFB Girl: I understand you have been trying out with NFL teams—how has that been going?
McDermott: Tryouts have been great. I’ve worked out with numerous teams. I just worked out with the 49ers yesterday. I’m happy with how I’ve snapped and I’ve gotten good feedback from the coaches. I’m really looking forward to the weekend of April 25 because the draft happens and even if I don’t get drafted I think that free agency will go well for me.
CFB Girl: Finally, and most importantly, if I wanted to impress a 6’5, 245 lb. guy such as yourself, considering that I’ve never actually played football at any level, what observations could I possibly make about the snap that would accomplish that?
McDermott: If you were able to tell that a snap was bad. We all know that if the snap goes over someone’s head out the back of the end zone that it’s a bad snap. But that’s every snapper’s worst nightmare. A bad snap to us is if it’s at someone’s ankle or someone’s face. The Sweet spot to us is if the ball hits the punter anywhere between his sternum and his knees; that’s a good snap. If you were watching a game and able to say that’s a bad snap just because it was a little below his knees or a little bit high, that would be impressive. Or if you were able to say that the punt took a little while to get off because the snap was slow, that would be impressive, because no guy would necessarily know that.
I look forward to putting my new knowledge to work watching spring games and watching to see where Kevin McDermott ends up. For updates on how the NFL Draft and free agency go, follow us on twitter: @thecfbgirl.