MORGANTOWN — Perhaps the best testament to John DePalma’s skills as a long snapper comes from one of the two players to whom he fires the ball between his legs.
It concerns not the West Virginia junior’s best snap ever, but his worst. Mike Molinari doesn’t even have to think hard to recall it.
“The worst snap I’ve ever gotten from DePalma was Kansas State, two years ago at home,’’ WVU’s holder for place-kicks said. “In warmups.’’
“Yeah, he almost flew it over my right shoulder. I had to make a one-handed grab,’’ Molinari said. “I got it, but that’s the one we look back on and laugh.’’
There aren’t many West Virginia players who can boast that over the past two seasons they’ve never made a mistake in their primary function. Were there even a handful, of course, the Mountaineers wouldn’t be 11-14 over that span.
DePalma is the exception, even if few really notice.
“That’s the thing with long snappers. They don’t get the credit they really deserve,’’ said Molinari, who in the past two seasons has taken snaps from DePalma as both a holder for placements and a punter. “The only time they get noticed is when they do something wrong.’’
Once upon a time, long snappers were more of an afterthought for college football teams. It wasn’t that they weren’t vital. They are, and that has never changed.
But until very recently, long snappers were gleaned from the list of walk-ons who arrive each year. Coaches always assumed they could find one when the time came, so it was never a priority in recruiting. To a lesser extent, kickers and punters used to be in the same boat, although their actual recruitment and the scholarships allotted to them have been growing for a few decades.
More recently, though, the importance of special teams and the competition for dependable long snappers has placed a premium on guys who can throw the ball backward between their legs. There are camps and clinics for them, and DePalma is a veteran of one of the best of those schools, run by Chris Rubio.
Scholarships for long snappers are still relatively rare compared to those of most position players, but they do exist. When WVU special teams coordinator Joe DeForest began searching for specialists in the first full recruiting class of the Dana Holgorsen era, he found DePalma through the Rubio camp.
“There were actually six in my class who got full scholarships,’’ DePalma said. “I’m pretty sure they were [the only ones in the country].’’
DePalma wasn’t always just a long snapper. In fact, he looks more like the tight end/defensive end type he was in high school in Cumming, Ga. At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, he stands out when WVU’s specialists head to work.
But he also knew he just wouldn’t quite cut it as a position player at the next level.
“I knew I wasn’t the fastest, I wasn’t the strongest,’’ DePalma said. “Obviously, you have to think about what you’re best at.
“Long snapping was on the back burner. And then one day I realized, ‘Wow, I’m really good at this.’ ”
There is, however, more to snapping than just the snap. Yes, that’s the most important part and, in the end, what will separate those who win jobs from those who don’t. But after the snap, particularly punt snaps, there’s more to the play. Snappers are generally ignored by return teams in favor of blocking those who are more adept at running downfield in coverage. More often than not, the long snapper is one of the first players down the field to cover a punt.
Having pretty much mastered the art of snapping the ball, DePalma is working on that aspect. He had all of one assisted tackle last season, two the year before that.
“It’s more about just getting faster,’’ DePalma said. “If I’m running down the field and everybody’s blowing by me, I’m never going to get there. So it’s more about just getting to the position to make the tackle.’’
The challenge of playing the position, though, extends to more than just snapping and covering and all the physical requirements. There is also the anonymity.
“Dealing with never really getting praise,’’ DePalma said of the biggest challenge. “If I have the best snap I’ve ever snapped, no one will even notice. You just have to be able to pat yourself on the back when you know you did the best you could do.
“But it’s about wanting to be a part of something big, something bigger than myself. That’s why I worked so hard to be in this position, to be here.’’
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.