Long snappers: Looking at football upside down

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Long snappers: Looking at football upside down

NEW ORLEANS (AP) They look at the world upside down between their legs.

The only time they get noticed is when they mess up.

Such is life for a long snapper.

In Sunday's Super Bowl, Brian Jennings of the San Francisco 49ers and Morgan Cox of the Baltimore Ravens will be snapping for punts, field goals and extra points.

They have the same goal: Don't do anything that draws a lick of attention.

``That's part of a long snapper's personality,'' Cox said. ``We just want to stay in the background.''

It may seem like a simple skill - hiking the ball between your legs - but it takes years of practice to be able to perform it with the consistency, accuracy and velocity required in the NFL.

They know one slight miscue could cost the game.

``You've got guys who've been out there banging their heads for 3 1/2 hours,'' Jennings said. ``You don't want to go out there and screw it up.''

While snappers, like kickers and punters, are viewed as something of outcasts compared to the rest of the roster, there's a growing appreciation for what they do. Camps have sprung up around the country dedicated solely to the art of hiking the ball - 7 or 8 yards to a holder for field goals and PATs, 14 or 15 yards to a punter.

A player who has no chance of making it to the NFL based on arm strength or his 40 time can now carve out a niche on special teams.

Don't chuckle. Jennings has managed to stay in the league for 13 years - all with San Francisco - doing nothing but snapping the ball. Cox is finishing up his third year with the Ravens and he, too, hopes for a long career looking at the world from a different perspective.

``I snap the ball accurately for a living,'' the 36-year-old Jennings said. ``I think that's awesome.''

If there's a drawback, it's catching grief from their teammates about the massive amounts of time they spend standing around on the sideline. But that's all in good fun. Everyone knows the snapper has a vital role to play.

``Whenever somebody puts his hand on the football, his job is very, very important,'' 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. ``One snap over the kicker's head, one snap that's wide right or a little low, can be the difference in a football game. People don't really notice you unless you do something bad at that position.''

Jennings was a tight end in college at Arizona State, but he got into snapping while recovering from an injury. Bored and just goofing around one day at practice, he hiked a few balls. Turns out, he had a knack for it, delivering the ball with surprising speed.

``A couple of my teammates said, `Hey, you're pretty good at that. Why don't you do that?''' he recalled. ``So I started practicing snapping so I could help my team.''

He did it so well that he was picked in the seventh round of the 2000 draft by the 49ers.

He's been in San Francisco ever since.

For Cox, snapping began when he was a fifth-grader playing youth football.

One day at practice, the coach asked if there were any volunteers for the thankless position. Cox raised his hand. His first attempt wasn't so good but his dad, who happened to be watching, encouraged young Morgan to give it another try. His do-over was much better, and he had a new position on the team in addition to being the center.

By high school, Cox realized that snapping might be his path to playing at a major college. He went to special teams camp organized by Tennessee, impressed the coaches with his skills and wound up being recruited by the Volunteers. But they weren't about to give a scholarship to someone just for snapping, so he had to walk on. He was the No. 1 long snapper for three years, but didn't receive a scholarship until his senior season.

No hard feelings.

It helped him get to the biggest game of his life.

``I can't say enough how blessed I feel to be here, to be somebody that gets to contribute to a potential Super Bowl win,'' Cox said.

His 49ers counterpart has already started giving back to the next generation of snappers with a program known as ``Jennings 1-4-1,'' which runs camps and develops training aids for kids who are trying to follow in his footsteps.

The name is a play on the philosophy he urges every snapper to take - focus on the next one, nothing more.

``Every rep, you're trying to be one-for-one,'' Jennings said. ``I can do anything once. Now, I don't know if I have 10,000 snaps left in my career, or 1,000 or 500 or 50. But I don't know if I could do 100 in a row. That seems like a lot. That seems daunting. But the next one? I can nail the next one.''

For Jennings, the most important part of snapping is the grip. He uses what he calls the ``Nerf Turbo'' - essentially, the same style he used to make one of those foam footballs do a spiral. It allows him to get impressive speed on his snaps, giving the punter or kicker an extra split-second to beat the rush.

Cox doesn't snap the ball nearly as hard as Jennings. The Ravens specialist focuses on consistency and accuracy, taking a meticulous approach to make sure he hikes the ball the same way every time.

On field goals and extra points, he always puts his heels on the same part of the hash mark. Then, he attempts to rotate the ball the same number of times so the holder - punter Sam Koch - can place it down in one motion with the laces facing away. If Koch has to spin the ball before placing it on the turf, it can throw off the timing just a bit.

As for those who don't look at snappers as real players, consider this: In Cox rookie's season, he tore up a knee but still finished the game, snapping the ball six more times in excruciating pain.

``As funny as it sounds, that was a really great experience for me,'' Cox said. ``To come out of it having all the support from my teammates, to hear them say, `Wow, that was awesome what you did.'''

Yep, these guys are real players.

And real important, too.

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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AFC North: Steelers LB James Harrison will return for 2016

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AFC North: Steelers LB James Harrison will return for 2016

The Ravens can expect to see Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison as an opponent again in 2016. Harrison confirmed on his Instagram account Monday that he would return for another season.

Harrison will turn 38 years old Wednesday (May 4), but he was still effective in 2015 with five sacks and 40 tackles playing in the Steelers’ linebacker rotation. With his announcement that he was returning, Harrison wrote “I’m feeling just like a fine wine. Getting better with age.”

Despite Harrison’s age, the Steelers believe they got younger and better on defense through the draft. Five of the Steelers’ seven picks were on defense – cornerback Artie Burns (first round), safety Sean Davis (second), defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (third round), outside linebacker Travis Feeney (sixth round), and inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich (seventh round).  

Clearly, there will be plenty of new names in the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, with both teams looking to get younger and faster. However, Harrison plans to be part of the mix for at least another season. The Ravens host the Steelers in Week 9, and visit the Steelers on Christmas afternoon.

MORE RAVENS: BISCIOTTI GETS HIS WISH WITH BOLSTERED PASS RUSH

Bisciotti gets his wish with draft class full of pass rushers

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Bisciotti gets his wish with draft class full of pass rushers

At the team's "State of the Ravens" end-of-season news conference, owner Steve Bisciotti made no bones about where he thought the Ravens needed to improve in 2016: rushing the passer.

So although Bisciotti didn't speak to the media after the draft, he had to be pleased with the results.

With two of their first three picks, the Ravens selected players who figure to pressure the quarterback -- Boise State linebacker Kamalei Correa and Brigham Young defensive end Bronson Kaufusi.

"They both have pass rush ability," coach John Harbaugh said. "They both get sacks, they are both high-motor players and high-energy pass rushers. These two guys are going to run to the ball. These two guys are going to run to the ball 100 miles an hour every single play. That’s really important on defense.”

The next day, the Ravens added Grand Valley State defensive end Matt Judon -- who had 20 sacks last year -- in the fifth round. Just for good measure, they also reportedly agreed to sign undrafted rookie linebacker Victor Ochi of Stony Brook, who led the Football Championship Subdivision with 13 sacks.

Harbaugh said after the draft that "I don't think it was a secret" that Bisciotti wanted the Ravens to upgrade the pass rush, "and we were able to fill (that need). I’m really fired up about that. I’m really excited about these guys getting to the quarterback.”

Bisciotti said in January that losing Terrell Suggs to a season-ending injury in Week 1 had a "domino effect" that greatly disrupted the defense. Elvis Dumervil was forced into more of a three-down role, and Courtney Upshaw never came close to replacing Suggs' sack numbers. Dumervil dropped from 17 sacks to six, and overall the Ravens dropped from 49 sacks in 2014 to 37 last season.

When the pass rush failed to pressure the quarterback, coverage linebackers or defensive backs were frequently exposed.

"I think I have a true appreciation of what pressure means, and so that’s what I think we need to do," Bisciotti had said in January. "I think we need to focus on our free agency and our draft, and I think we have to have multiple pass rushers in order to let everybody else be effective.”

Suggs turns 34 in October and is coming off his second major Achilles injury. Dumervil is 32. So the need to develop good young pass rushers is obvious. The Ravens hope they took a big step in that direction over the weekend.

MORE RAVENS: EVALUATING ALL FIVE 4TH-ROUND SELECTIONS

Will Ravens' record-setting fourth-round bonanza live up to the hype?

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Will Ravens' record-setting fourth-round bonanza live up to the hype?

Will the Ravens’ fourth-round haul live up to the hype?

No team in NFL history had ever made five fourth-round picks, and some felt the Ravens hit on all of them. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay says, “This might be the best fourth round I’ve ever seen from a team.”

Here’s a closer look at how the five players the Ravens selected in Round 4 could fit in next season:

Tavon Young, CB, Temple (104th overall)

Young will compete for a nickel corner spot as a rookie. Barring injuries, the only certainty about the Ravens secondary is Jimmy Smith starting at one corner and Eric Weddle starting at safety. Young will compete for playing time with Shareece Wright, Kyle Arrington, Will Davis, and others. But if Young plays regularly as a rookie and helps them win games, it’s a steal.

Chris Moore, WR, Cincinnati (107)

Moore has legit deep speed, joining Breshad Perriman and Mike Wallace as receivers that can stretch the field for quarterback Joe Flacco. Think about it, the Ravens didn’t’ have Perriman, Wallace, or Moore on the field last season. If Moore has a strong training camp, the Ravens will find a way to get him some opportunities. Remember the big plays Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones made during the Super Bowl year? The Ravens hope Wallace, Perriman, and Moore provide that kind of impact.

Alex Lewis, OT, Nebraska (130)

If the Ravens part with left tackle Eugene Monroe, Lewis could become the backup at left tackle behind first-round pick Ronnie Stanley. Lewis could also be the backup to right tackle Rick Wagner. Either way, Lewis could be one injury away from playing.

Willie Henry, DT, Michigan (132)

He’s the fourth-rounder with the hardest path to immediate playing time. The Ravens are deep at defensive tackle with Brandon Williams, Timmy Jernigan, and Carl Davis. But if Henry shows he can help as a run stopper, he’ll be part of the defensive line rotation.

Kenneth Dixon, RB, Louisiana Tech (134)

Some thought Dixon was the best pass-catching back in the draft. Justin Forsett will enter camp as the starter, but the Ravens want to keep him fresh. It’s a crowded running back group right now, but Buck Allen and Lorenzo Taliaferro both saw playing time as rookie running backs. Dixon will too, if he shows he’s ready to make plays.

MORE RAVENS: A WAY TOO EARLY NFL DRAFT TOP 10