Face protection the priority when catching long snaps
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) The first snap catch was a protective reaction, like swatting a bee from your face. The next was more shock, producing a look-what-I-just-did glance around Arizona State's practice bubble - that no one saw or cared about.
The third snap: Whap! Right through the hands, tip of the football hitting me in the sternum like a 95 mph fastball.
''Ball's got a little zip on it, doesn't it?'' Arizona State associate head coach and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said.
He's got that right.
Anyone who has played football in a park or two-hand touch in the street has tried long snapping, often in games of who-can-chuck-it-farthest.
At the elite level, long snapping is much more than just looking through your legs and throwing it back to a buddy who yells ''Hike!'' It requires speed, power, accuracy and, on field goals, getting the laces to spin just right.
Doing it with consistency is one of the most unique and difficult jobs in all of sports - and one of the most thankless.
A long snapper could let 1,000 perfect snaps fly without being recognized. Sail it over a kicker's head or dribble one to his feet and suddenly they're the center of unwanted attention.
''The coach doesn't want to have to worry about the deep snapper,'' Slocum said. ''He just has to do his job and not get his name in the paper. If no one knows his name, he's done his job.''
I wanted to see what it was like to catch a long snap, so I met up with Arizona State long snapper Mitchell Fraboni.
After a few pigskin cannonballs from Fraboni, the goal shifted: Don't get hit in the face.
We warmed up by throwing the ball around. I did it in my close-to-traditional football-throwing way. Fraboni went with two-handed tosses, an overhand version of what he does on long snaps.
No need to explain who threw the ball harder or more accurately.
On the field, 15 yards seemed like a long way for someone to throw the ball through his legs. I wished it was 15 yards farther once Fraboni unleashed his first full-body heave at me.
As I found out, the arm tosses of the playground do not fly at this level.
With each snap, Fraboni seemed to uncoil his body like a lineman launching into a blocking sled, the focal point of force at his release point instead into a pad. Amazingly, he does it without gripping the laces, using his oven-mitt-sized hands to manhandle the ball.
''It's not just like a quarterback who can turn his shoulders and let it go without moving his feet,'' said Fraboni, a sophomore who earned a scholarship this season after having preferred walk-on status as a freshman. ''You really have to get a lot into it. A lot of the power comes from your hips and your core, then it transitions into your hands. The better your spiral is, the faster the ball will go.''
Fraboni's target is around the punter's hips, typically a little to the left since ASU punter Matt Haack is left-footed. He was right on the mark on every of the dozen or so snaps except one that ended up just above my knees.
I had no chance, feeling like the Tin Man trying to tie his shoe as the ball thudded off my wrists.
At least catching field goal snaps would be easier.
Though the velocity was less, it was like facing a baseball pitcher throwing heat, then shifting to a hard-throwing softball pitcher; shorter distance, but the ball gets on you much faster.
I wanted to duck.
The target here is the holder's knee. Fraboni nailed it every time.
He also made it so that every time the ball hit my hands, the ball's laces faced him.
Kickers never want to kick the laces and part of the holder's job is to spin the ball laces out. Fraboni simplifies the rotational equation by snapping so the laces are within a quarter turn of already being in position, a skill he perfected through trial and error. He nailed that every time as well.
''How you hold the ball, how your release it, you just have to adjust until you find your rhythm,'' he said.
It's a good thing he had the laces pre-spun for me; I was so surprised at catching the ball, lace placement was an afterthought.
I even forgot to put the ball down a couple times.
Had it been a game, the entire defense would have been in the backfield by the time I got the ball down - including the returner.
At least I didn't get hit in the face.