Why is it, one often ponders, that the plays which average the most major yardage changes are the most oft-ignored. So it has been, again, with West Virginia’s developments at long snapper and holder. The Mountaineers are coming off four consecutive seasons of stellar long snapping, and three in which the special teams ranked in the top two in the Big East in all major categories – it fell to the middle of the pack in punt and kickoff coverage after the loss to Louisville last year and never fully recovered. So perhaps it’s an afterthought for a program which has been, perhaps unfairly, ridiculed for special teams blunders in the past.
But with the consecutive years of snapping from Scott Fleming and Tim Lindsey, the spot has been, dare we write, every bit as solid as the offensive skill slots, including Pat White and Steve Slaton. Now, with Princeton, W.Va. native Adam Hughes primed to play snapper this season, WVU must again break in an inexperienced athlete at the position for the third time in five years.
“I don’t consider it tough to replace Tim Lindsey,” said Hughes, who at 6-1 and 220 pounds is three inches and 40-plus pounds lighter than the player he is replacing. “He did have a great pro day and is probably going to get picked up. But before him there was Scott Fleming, so there has been a history of great long snappers. I’m just trying to do my best to fulfill that job. That’s all I can do. As a long snapper, you definitely don’t want anybody to notice you.”
The major spring improvement project for Hughes is speed. His accuracy is adequate, the snaps finding their mark to holder Carmen Connolly or the myriad of punters, including Pat McAfee and Scott Kozlowski. But the velocity isn’t quite of yet, and so the summer holds huge potential for Hughes, which will attempt to both put on weight and gain strength while also bettering his quickness as far as snaps and within the coverages employed by the Mountaineers.
“(Snap speed) is always a big thing,” Hughes said. “I’ll put on weight over the summer, get stronger and get ready for the season. Spring is going well. I have gotten better every day. I am working harder and trying to get better at my skills. I am in the starting lineup right now, running with the first team the entire spring so far, and the snaps have been fairly sharp. But I really want to work on the speed of my snap.”
WVU is not yet allowing Hughes to snap to as many locations as Lindsey did. For example, the Bridgeport, W.Va. native could hit punters Scott Kozlowski and Pat McAfee when they were rolling out, the added advantage being they could roll quicker and more easily without waiting the half-second for the snap to arrive. It might not seem like much, but the added time allows for an easier release for the kickers, and takes pressure off the blocking scheme. Hughes isn’t yet as proficient at hitting moving targets, and so at least for spring, that aspect of play has been scrapped, though it will be reevaluated and tested throughout fall camp.
If Hughes can master that while still keeping his speed and delivery and blocking mechanics, he’ll be well on his way to solidifying the long snapper position. Hughes, with his smaller size, has a bit better mobility in the open field. So where West Virginia had Lindsey spring down to a certain location and hold his ground, becoming part of the wall of coverage players, Hughes is allowed a bit more freedom to chase the returner.
“On punt, I snap the ball and I am hot to the ball,” he said. “I am a bullet, basically. My job is to run down and make that guy, the returner, jump one way or another.”
And once the commitment is made, other skill players rally to the football to make the tackle. Hughes, like all long snappers, has an advantage in that they are not allowed to be blocked until after they get their head comes up following the snap. It’s a safety measure inserted into the rules years ago by the NCAA, and punt teams are taking full advantage of teams at times ignoring the snapper and overloading the sides because of the inability to get a block up the very middle because of the no-contact regulations. With the slot ignored, snappers often have open ground on a line directly to the returner, an option too enticing to forgo.
Within the placekicking game, Hughes is partnering on the first squad with Connolly, a slot receiver with soft, quick hands that has excelled throughout his career at holding. WVU will not limit the on-field snaps of Connolly – a bit more purely skilled than the past two holders – as it did with both George Shehl and Travis McClintic for fear of injury, and so depth is even more of an issue, with reserve quarterback Markell Harrison the backup holder.
“I’ve done it a lot, high school and for the Big 33 game,” Connolly said of holding. “Pat and Adam have been great in helping me come along. Pat has been telling me how he likes it. Tim and Adam are both great snappers. Working with Tim was even better because he is at that pro level of a long snapper. He gave me the advice and with his snaps, I could get ready and concentrate on just the hold without worrying about location. That has helped more for this season. It has been going smoothly.”