Each year, when the recruiting trail heats up for high school football players, most of the attention is focused on skill-position players and dominant linemen.
Offensive and defensive players don’t just build their reputations in the fall. Summer tournaments, camps and performance centers give them a chance to train and be in the spotlight nearly year round as they try to catch the eye of a college recruiter.
But what about the players who excel in the third phase of the game? What about the special-teamers?
Seems the process is much the same, even if the scholarship offers are not as plentiful.
Two local players — Archbishop Murphy senior long snapper Tommy Sullivan and Jackson senior kicker/punter Daniel Yoon — are ranked among the top 100 in the nation in their specialties. Each is trying to carve out a path he hopes will lead to a spot on a college football roster.
Although Sullivan and Yoon attend schools just two miles apart, their gridiron paths never crossed until this past May, when both were in Las Vegas. Sullivan was attending the Chris Rubio Long Snapping Camp, and Yoon was at the Chris Sailer Kicking Camp. The two camps are run by former UCLA teammates Chris Rubio and Chris Sailer.
The special-teamers from each camp were staying at the same hotel and Yoon heard Sullivan talking about the Seattle area. “I was like, ‘Oh, I live (near) Seattle, too,” Yoon said.
After that camp, the two spent the summer training together whenever possible. In the process, they formed a friendship.
— Tommy Sullivan (@TSully099) August 1, 2019
“If we didn’t have practice, spring practice or a workout over the summer, we just got together at Archbishop Murphy’s field or Jackson High School’s field and snapped and kicked,” Sullivan said.
Both noted each other’s work ethic. Yoon said working with a long snapper of Sullivan’s caliber helped prepare him for the speed of snaps at the next level.
“When I actually first started getting snaps from Tommy, it was too fast (for me) and I couldn’t catch the ball correctly,” Yoon said.
Sullivan, ranked No. 28 nationally and No. 1 in the state for the class of 2020 by Chris Rubio Long Snapping, grew up playing football. He got his chance at long snapping as a sixth-grader. He was asked by coaches to try it at a practice and ended up being the best option. He’s been long snapping ever since.
After snapping through his middle school years, Sullivan realized getting varsity playing time early in high school as a long snapper was a possibility. He started to take the role more seriously, and his dad, Chris, started researching ways for his son to perfect his craft. That’s when he found Rubio’s camps.
“We tried a camp, I liked it and did that for a couple years and now I’m here,” Sullivan said.
Yoon, ranked the No. 95 kicker nationally and No. 1 in the state for the class of 2020 by Chris Sailer Kicking, didn’t play football growing up.
The Jackson senior played soccer until his sophomore year. The prospect of playing football didn’t occur to him until he watched the Timberwolves play a late-season game his sophomore year.
“I went to one of the football games and I saw … the kicker just kind of kicking the kickoffs and field goals, and I thought it was kind of cool,” Yoon said. “So I contacted the kicker and then he invited me to practice.”
Yoon got a chance to kick a bit at practice, but it was the season’s final week, so he wasn’t going to get a chance to get into a game.
He decided he wanted to pursue kicking and punting for the football team and started training during the offseason. It became his No. 1 hobby.
“Some people play video games. I just went out to kick footballs literally every day — sometimes even two times a day,” Yoon said.
His first in-game action came as a junior.
“Technically, I guess I haven’t even (been kicking) a football for two years,” he said with a laugh.
Yoon said he could barely make a 35-yard field goal when he started. Now he can hit from 50-plus yards.
— Tommy Sullivan (@TSully099) June 2, 2019
Most football fans are familiar with what makes a quarterback, linebacker or wide receiver effective. But what makes a special-teams player stand out?
For kickers and punters, there’s plenty of stats. Field-goal and extra-point percentages, average yards per punt and touchbacks on kickoffs are obvious indicators of success, but other nuances — such as hang time on a punt — are tougher to judge for those not specifically looking for them. There’s also the two variables the kicker can’t control: the holder and the snapper.
Sailer said the three things his kicking camp emphasizes are power, accuracy and mental makeup.
Sailer said Yoon was “raw but a very talented raw” when he started attending the camps.
“He definitely improved each time we saw him,” Sailer said. “That’s one of the things we enjoy about Daniel the most. (He) always had a pretty good leg, but it got stronger. Technique was pretty raw at first, but he improved. … The last camp we saw him, which was the big national camp down in (Las) Vegas, he was one of the top field-goal scorers at the entire camp, which brought in over 200 place-kickers from around the country.”
For long snappers, the easy-to-glance-at statistics aren’t really there.
Rubio broke down an effective long snapper into seven factors: mentality, snap speed, accuracy, consistency, athleticism, spiral and size.
He said the average college long snapper is going to get the ball to the punter at 15 yards at .7 to .75 seconds with the goal of hitting the punter between his lowest rib and mid-thigh.
He noted consistency as one of Sullivan’s greatest strengths.
“Tommy’s a great example where he snaps about a .75, .76, .77 (seconds),” Rubio said. “He’s very, very consistent where every single ball is right around that wheelhouse.”
Rubio also lauded Sullivan’s work ethic and attitude.
“The kid works his butt off,” Rubio said. “… He’s one of those kids that every single time I’ve seen him, and I’ve seen him about 10 to 15 times at this point, he’s always improved. He’s always gotten better. He does not stay stagnant. He works on his form.
“He’s a very, very good listener. He’s coachable. A lot of kids will hear you but you almost sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher to them. He’s one of those where you speak and it goes right into his brain. That’s one of the things that college coaches are going to absolutely love.”
Getting recruited as a special-teams player is a slightly different process than traditional positions. For one things, it requires much more patience. Special-teamers are often the last guys to fill out a recruiting class.
Rubio said there are long snappers who get early offers, but most get offered after signing day, spring practices or even as late as early August.
“Unfortunately, we’re the last ones to get recruited,” he said.
The situation is the same for kickers.
Sailer said the country’s top kickers will see some early offers, but most have to wait out the recruiting process.
“Still, in the grand scheme of things kickers, punters and long snappers are generally going to be the last to be recruited,” he said. “However, the timeline has definitely advanced over about the last 10 years. Whereas kickers used to have to wait literally until after signing day to get attention, now they’re getting attention … between junior and senior year.”
Yoon has an offer from NCAA Division-I FCS Lehigh University and a few from smaller programs.
But even if the offers aren’t rolling in, special-teamers still get the chance to make the visits to campus and team camps their peers on offense and defense do.
Sullivan has made unofficial visits to the University of Washington, Washington State University, Montana State University and other Division-I programs in the Pacific Northwest.
— Tommy Sullivan (@TSully099) August 31, 2019
Yoon has gotten the chance to visit some well-known programs for kicking camps, including a trip to the University of Michigan, where he was one of five players chosen to kick in front of Michigan special-teams coordinator Chris Partridge.