Caleb Spurlin could be found throughout spring practice occasionally trying a new skill. Well, a new-ish skill.
Spurlin, a defensive lineman for Appalachian State, took a few shots at long snapping during the Mountaineers’ 15 practices a few months ago. He’s one of a few insurance policies for special teams coordinator Erik Link at the long snapping position. Spurlin, a sophomore, spent time at the position last spring but wasn’t needed during the 2018 season.
But there he was again this spring, trying to get ready.
“I mean, I wouldn’t say a natural,” Spurlin said. “But I feel like if I can work at anything, you can make it a habit.”
Coach Eliah Drinkwitz is fortunate that his first year in Boone comes with 17 returning starters for the offense and defense. But one key position the Mountaineers are forced to work on is long snapper. Elias McMurry, who played in 51 career games, held the position for the past four seasons.
Drinkwitz said App State has found McMurry’s successor in Christian Johnstone, a long snapper the Mountaineers will bring in on scholarship as part of the 2019 signing class.
“We knew that it was a position of need and a position of concern, and we targeted some guys that we really wanted, and Christian is the best,” Drinkwitz said during App State’s signing day news conference. “I mean, he’s one of the best, if not the best, long snappers in the country.
“And so for us to get a position that we could feel very secure about and feel like, ‘All right, we got that sewn up,’ it was like putting the franchise tag on him in the NFL. Let’s go ahead and get him a scholarship, get him to sign and let’s roll.”
But one is not nearly enough for Link. That’s where Spurlin and linebacker Tyler Bird come in. Both, among a couple of other players, saw time snapping the ball in the spring.
Link said the job is fairly simple, in theory. If a player can throw the ball with a decent spiral, they can probably work at being a long snapper. But there’s a need for repetition, especially for the snappers working on the punt unit, which has the punter roughly 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Plus, like everything else, Link said guys must be ready for the anonymity that comes with the role.
“Long snapper is one of those positions — you hear some people say in football ‘nobody knows the offensive linemen’s names unless they make a mistake,’” Link said. “Well, I mean, I don’t buy that because if you’re a good offensive lineman, people know who you are. Snapper? That is the true definition: nobody will know your name unless you make a mistake.”
That’s where guys such as Bird and Spurlin come in. Both bring the benefit of playing defensive positions. So in punt situations, it would give App State a true defensive player at all 11 positions on the field. But the downside, Link said, is guys like that don’t get all the snapping reps they need because they’re working at other positions.
“That battery of snapper-punter, snapper-holder-kicker is so important,” Link said. “Those guys are constantly working together right? It’s like having your holder be a position player. Sometimes you have to do it but ideally you have punter or somebody that’s a specialist that can also be a holder because you can get a million reps throughout the course of practice.
“... Kicker and holder — it’s like a pitcher and a catcher working together. It’s that battery that’s working together all the time.“
Bird provided as much special teams work as he could during the spring. On top of working in the inside linebackers group, he also appeared on special teams as a true freshman last season. He played in all 13 games of 2018.
Bird was a long snapper during his final two seasons at North Paulding High School in Georgia. He’s dusting off that ability to give Link one more option in case injuries happen.
“I did it in high school, and it’s just kind of slowly built on itself,” Bird said. “It’s never been something that I worked on heavy because I’m a linebacker first but just building over time on it, getting better at it.
“I think it’s just in my head, snapping it straight and getting some velocity on it and getting out and make it a tackle.”