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May 23, 2012
Taybor Pepper weighed just 175 pounds when he began his senior year at Saline (Mich.) High School last fall, yet he owns a Big Ten football scholarship and hopes to snap for Michigan State as a true freshman.
"It's amazing," Pepper said.
Pepper won't be an every-down lineman for Michigan State. Even though he has increased his weight to 195 and plans to gain 15 more pounds by time he enrolls in college, Pepper isn't nearly big enough for that challenge. But his improbable story underscores the growing importance of deep snappers in college football.
At least 25 of the 121 non-academies in the FBS ranks have long snappers who were awarded scholarships directly out of high school or junior college. Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell estimates that represents about a 20 percent increase over the last five or six years.
And how much of a change is it from the situation Chris Rubio encountered when he snapped for UCLA from 1994-97?
"It's night and day," said Rubio, who has tutored many of the scholarship snappers as the head of the Rubio Long Snapping camp.
Rubio said deep snappers were fortunate to earn roster spots as preferred walk-ons when he was coming out of high school. The idea of a snapper receiving a scholarship directly out of high school was unheard of at the time.
He has noticed that trend changing each year in the decade since he started his camp. His clients this year earned scholarships from the likes of LSU, West Virginia, Notre Dame and Arizona State as well as Michigan State.
"It's become more of a specialty position where kids are trained to do that exactly from seventh grade or eighth grade," Michigan State special teams coach Mike Tressel said. "When you really start training and getting specific in one area, you can jump a lot of other people who are just trying to pick that up as an additional skill. They're polished. They're ready to go. They're focused. Because they're so focused so early and they're training specifically for that and going to camps and working with experts who've done that in the NFL, they're ready to roll."
As Pepper can attest, long snappers don't have to be quite as big as the 300-pound centers who snap the ball on first, second and third down. Rubio said the ideal snapper is about 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, though each coach can have a different preference.
During field-goal attempts, teams often put their largest players at guard to help the snapper in protection. Some teams often design punt schemes in which the snapper doesn't have to do much in protection and instead focuses on coverage.
That's why size isn't nearly as important as consistency. A snapper's biggest challenge is avoiding the mistake that gets him noticed for all the wrong reasons.
"College coaches treat a good long snapper like a Honda Accord," Rubio said. "They're not the flashiest, but it's going to start every single time you turn the key. That's what they want with their snappers. They want to recruit them, sign them and not talk to them again until they graduate.''
Often snappers must wait until after National Signing Day before getting offered, as teams sort out their rosters and determine whether they need to use a scholarship at that position. That's what happened to Pepper and Cumming (Ga.) Pinecrest Academy's John DePalma.
DePalma, who just started snapping about 18 months ago, signed with West Virginia on March 2. Pepper, who had expected to enroll at Michigan as a preferred walk-on, instead accepted a scholarship offer from Michigan State last month. Pepper will have a chance to win the job this fall because incumbent Matt Giampapa left the team for personal reasons.
"First and foremost, we've recognized that special teams has won us some ballgames in the past couple of years," Tressel said. "It's huge for us. Long snapper's obviously one of those positions that you don't realize how important it is until you don't have it. We came to a conclusion we don't want to get ourselves caught in that position. We not only want to have one; we want to have competition for that position like every other position on our football team.''
While Pepper and DePalma had to wait patiently for their opportunities, a growing number of snappers are getting pursued much earlier in the recruiting process.
The most recent beneficiary of this changing attitude is Bakersfield (Calif.) Liberty's Cole Mazza, who received three offers from Pac-12 programs before finishing his junior year in high school. Mazza, arguably the top snapper in the 2013 class, announced two weeks ago that he had chosen UCLA over Utah and Washington State.
"It's pretty exciting to know all this time I've been snapping, I actually made something of it," Mazza said. "It's pretty surprising to me; I actually have my college paid for. It's reality now that I can play college football. It had been my dream growing up."
Why are more colleges offering scholarships to snappers? For one thing, they understand the costs associated with making a special teams mistake at the wrong time.
"Special teams has become so important," Farrell said. "One [breakdown] can cost you a game. One game can cost you a chance at a national title. So you're seeing an increase.''
And the growth of snapping camps has helped make the nation's top snappers better than they were a decade ago.
Colleges generally want long snappers now who are making that 15-yard snap to the punter in less than three-quarters of a second. Reid Ferguson, an early enrollee at LSU, consistently completes it in 0.65 seconds. Rubio said Mazza has been timed at 0.55 seconds.
They're also beginning to snap at a younger age. Rubio said he now has prospective snappers coming to his camps in seventh grade - or even earlier.
"It's almost like taking an SAT before it even counts," Rubio said. "You get used to it and feel the pressure, so by the time they're a junior or senior, they can dominate."
Rubio noted that Reid Ferguson began attending his camps in the eighth grade and gradually improved to the point that he received a scholarship offer from LSU. Ferguson's younger brother, Blake, often tagged along at those camps. Blake Ferguson has since developed into such a good snapper in his own right that he's a legitimate long-range college prospect as a ninth-grader.
Those family connections aren't unusual. Even though more and more schools are using scholarships on long snappers, it apparently remains a bit of a secret. Many of the top snappers got started at the urging of a friend or a family member.
Mazza began snapping in part because his father had done it in high school. Pepper also began snapping on the advice of his father, Cam Pepper, a former Illinois offensive lineman who had taken up snapping himself in an attempt to make it in the NFL.
"Since he had a basic understanding, he knew that it was possible, I could have a future in it," Pepper said. "I'd never really thought much about it."
Or consider the case of DePalma. The 6-foot-6 high school senior preferred basketball to football for much of his adolescence. He didn't even start snapping until the winter of 2010 after a friend from his high school, Bryce Haynes, got a scholarship offer to snap for Ohio State.
"He said, 'You've got to try this out,' '' DePalma said. "So I kind of picked it up and rolled with it."
Haynes and DePalma came from Pinecrest Academy, a tiny Catholic school with roughly 300 students from ninth through 12th grade. Yet thanks to long snapping, that school has produced a major-conference football recruit each of the last two years.
These snappers have different training methods.
DePalma, a relative newcomer to the craft, snapped 100 times each day to his father as a way to improve his technique. Pepper said 20-30 snaps per day are more than enough.
"I'm not snapping for quantity," Mazza said. "I'm snapping for quality. I want to get 20 perfect balls in a row. How many snaps it takes to get 20 perfect snaps, I'll be done after that.''
Plenty of the top snappers know each other after working together at camps. Pepper considers Reid Ferguson one of his closest friends and said they're "just like brothers."
They all can tell similar tales about the lack of respect they received for snapping, at least up until the day they were offered scholarships.
"People would tell me there's no use in a long snapper, that you can just move a tight end or a d-end to long snapper," Pepper said. "Then [after] some of the ... games that just happened with messed-up snaps, I got tweets from teammates saying, 'Oh, yeah, I see how important it is to have a good long snapper.' There's really no glamour in it, but anytime somebody else messes up, your team realizes how much they need you.''
More and more college coaches are starting to realize that as well.