‘You’ve got to be perfect’: Long snappers’ unique transition to NFL
Get all of Andy Staples’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
FLEMING ISLAND, Fla. — Paul Theus only wanted two more points. He never imagined he’d put his oldest son on a path toward the NFL.
“In Pop Warner, an extra point was worth two points instead of one,” the one-time Jacksonville-area Pop Warner coach said. “We had a kicker. If I could just get a snapper. . . . All I cared about when he was eight years old was getting those two points. We won a lot of games 8–6.”
They won those games because Nathan Theus could fire the ball back to the holder with two hands while the other kids sent back dribblers with one hand. Nathan didn’t want to snap with two, but Paul—whose day job was with the Clay County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Department—didn’t leave him much choice. “It was just that he was the coach’s kid,” Paul said with a laugh last week. “I could make him do it.”
This weekend, Nathan will be one of two Theus brothers waiting for a call from an NFL team. His younger brother John, who started for four years at Georgia as an offensive tackle, likely will be selected in the middle rounds of the draft. Nathan, who long snapped for the Bulldogs from 2012 to ’15, probably won’t get drafted, but his agent Michael Perrett likely will field calls Saturday night from teams that want to sign Nathan to snap in their training camps. If all goes well this summer, Nathan could wind up with one of the most unique jobs in sports.
Kevin Gold also will have his phone ready Saturday night for calls on behalf of client Jimmy Landes. Landes, who snapped at Baylor, was the only player at his position invited to the combine in February. So it would seem he has the inside track on any openings. “In theory there are 32 jobs,” Gold said. “In reality, only a few of the jobs are really open. I tell my guys it’s like trying to become president or a U.S. senator. It’s a good job, but it’s hard to get.”
Most jobs are currently occupied by veterans who have kept their teams happy. Only a few are truly open. The Cardinals have no snapper on the roster, so they’ll probably sign two and have them compete in camp. The Broncos released Aaron Brewer—who signed with the Bears—and signed Gold client Casey Kreiter, who spent the past two preseasons with the Cowboys after finishing at Iowa. The Broncos likely will sign another snapper to compete in camp with Kreiter. Other teams may also sign snappers to push incumbents in camp. Kreiter’s path is fairly common among snappers. “I tell snappers and their parents you’ve got to plan on two or three years,” Gold said. “It’s very difficult to come in and stick with your first club.”
The requirements for the job? The 15-yard snap must reach the punter in less than three-quarters of a second, and it must hit the spot of the punter’s choosing. Most punters want the ball at their right hip. Some want it closer to their face mask. No matter the spot, the punter and the coaching staff want the ball in the same place every time. “In this job, you’ve got to be perfect,” Landes said. “If you aren’t, they’ll find a guy who is.”
For a field goal or extra point snap, quickness is less of an issue than precision. “You learn from the Seattle-Minnesota game that the laces are important,” Gold said. “Most of the good snappers in the NFL have it down to a science. It’s typically three and a half rotations of the ball. The holder gets it and the laces are already out or the holder has to do a quarter turn and that’s all that’s required. The good guys in the NFL can do it like a machine.”
Actually, most of us learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective about the importance of the laces facing the goalpost. Strangely, Landes and Nathan Theus did not. Theus still hasn’t seen the original Ace, which premiered in 1994, a few months before his second birthday. Landes said during an interview at the combine that he saw the film, but he obviously saw the inferior sequel Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Anyone whose potential occupation depends on lace positioning would remember this critical scene.
“These kids nowadays,” Gold said. “I have to educate them, too.”
The Vikings’ 10–9 playoff loss to the Seahawks last year did highlight why having the laces out matters when foot strikes ball. Minnesota kicker Blair Walsh’s 27-yard attempt would have won the game. Walsh placed all the blame on himself after the loss, but the laces were clearly facing the wrong direction.
If the snapper’s name is mentioned on the television broadcast, something has gone terribly wrong. Theus learned in his first game as a starter at Georgia what can happen when a snap goes awry. The Bulldogs opened the 2013 season at Clemson. A drive stalled near the goal line late in the third quarter, and Theus and the field goal team took the field for a chip shot. “I sent that snap right above his helmet,” Theus said. “It put me off guard. It put him off guard.” Holder Adam Erickson couldn’t bring down the high snap, and he had to fall on the ball for a six-yard loss and a turnover on downs. Clemson wound up winning the game by three. When Theus looked at his phone on the bus ride home, it had blown up. “Death threats,” he said. “People telling you they’re waiting at your dorm.”
Theus estimates it took him about a month to recover mentally. An off-target punt snap two games later cost him the starting job, but he won it back later in the 2013 season and never had another bad snap at Georgia. Theus is glad he learned to deal with the aftermath of a bad snap early in his college career. “I know how to fix it and get through it,” he said. “You’ve just got to have a short memory. Good or bad. Every time you go out there, you have one job. That’s to snap the ball perfectly. It doesn’t matter what you did prior to that. It doesn’t matter what you’re going to do after that. It’s all about that moment.”
What else does an NFL snapper need besides precise mechanics and a boundary cornerback’s short-term memory? The preferred physical attributes might be the most specific in the sport. Coaches prefer snappers to be between 6' 0" and 6' 4" and between 240 and 260 pounds. They want them big enough to block, but they don’t want them so big they can’t cover the punt. Landes is 6' 1" and 240. Theus is 6' 3" and 240.
The biggest adjustment for snappers coming from college is the blocking responsibility. Baylor and Georgia ran the shield punt, which positions three blockers between the snapper and the punter. This meant Landes and Theus could snap and then release to cover the punt. In the NFL, most of the blockers will be on the line of scrimmage. Landes and Theus will be expected to block anyone who comes up the middle. Besides, they have to do something to bide the time between releasing the ball and the ball being punted. In the NFL, snappers can’t release until after the ball is punted.
Fortunately for Landes and Theus, both are former high school offensive linemen. Blocking is second nature. While Theus started snapping early, Landes came by it in a more traditional way. He was a smallish high school center who realized he had an aptitude for snapping and could play at a much higher level in college if he snapped instead of blocked. He never dreamed of snapping for a living until his junior year, when Baylor coach Art Briles and Justin Snow, a former Baylor snapper who played 12 years for the Colts, told Landes he could have an NFL future. An opinion such as Snow’s is valuable. Not all NFL scouts have a good eye for snappers. Veteran snappers know exactly what teams want.
The crustier scouts also don’t want to deal with snappers, who are almost as odd as the kickers they work with but are usually somewhat grounded by their offensive or defensive line pasts. At college football practices, the kickers and snappers usually retire to another field to practice their disciplines. But they don’t need as long. Landes estimates he’d snap between 30 and 40 times at a practice. Not because he was lazy, but because the operation has to be perfect. Fatigue makes for imperfect operation, and that could cause a snapper to develop some bad habits. So absent football-related work, the specialists find ways to while away the time. That occasionally leaves position players wondering what the heck the snappers and kickers do for most of practice.
“I didn’t wonder. I knew. I knew it was b.s.,” said John Theus, who is 18 months younger than Nathan. “He was down on the other field playing soccer ball games. Specialists are weird people. Nathan is the most normal one I’ve ever been around. Don’t get me wrong. He’s the creative one that comes up with these stupid games. I look down there and they’re all huddling around a trash can with a soccer ball heading it and shouldering it and kneeing it. I’m up there sweating my ass off and can’t breathe.”
Yes, the snappers do occasionally blow off steam with trick shots. After Baylor opened McLane Stadium, Landes did a little snapping from the upper deck.
Gold laughs at the trick shots, because they’ve inspired a legion of armchair snappers who believe a video of them in shorts snapping into a trash can can win them a spot in an NFL training camp. “I’ll get video from people that are 35 years old,” Gold said. “They never even played in college. But they’ve watched the NFL, and they know they can snap at the NFL level.” What’s funny is the snappers themselves didn’t watch the NFL snappers much before they realized they might join them. “When I watched NFL games, I never really noticed the long snapper,” Landes said. “That’s probably a good thing.”
This week, Landes and Nathan Theus probably will wait out the draft and then assess their options. Both realize there probably won’t be a snapper drafted like Patriots’ fifth-rounder Joe Cardona* was last year. Still, Cardona’s selection does give them hope. “It’s a lot easier to love it for that guy if he’s not in your class,” Nathan Theus cracked.
*Cardona, from Navy, may have been drafted in that spot so the Patriots could convince the Navy that Cardona should be allowed to delay his service commitment.
If Landes and Theus can land jobs, they could hold them for a long time. Unless a snapper gets the yips or plays so long that a team finds his veteran minimum salary too expensive, teams are loathe to move away from a player who puts the ball where it needs to be every time. So the pair could wind up having very long careers. And a few years after they retire, another generation of Theus snappers might be ready to enter the league. “If I have a kid, he’ll be a long snapper,” future NFL tackle John Theus said. “It’s the best position on the team.”