Curtis Billen has a game he likes to play.
When people find out the muscle-bound 6-foot-2, 215-pound Billen is a member of the Eastern Washington University football team, he asks them to guess which position he plays.
Linebacker? Fullback? Defensive end?
“No one guesses long snapper,” the Mariner High School graduate said.
Indeed, Billen has been the Eagles’ long snapper each of the past four seasons. But while long snapper is an unusual and unheralded role on a football team, it’s one that’s given Billen a college football career with an NCAA Division I program, and there’s a chance it could give Billen a shot at the pros.
”At this point I’m really happy with where I’m at,” Billen, a redshirt senior, said about his long-snapping journey. “I’m healthy, and I’m happy I’ve been able to do my job at a high level for four years.”
In the football world the position of long snapper is often met with amusement. There’s not a lot of fanfare for a player who’s only job is to make sure the ball gets hiked to the punter or kick holder.
But even if it’s not a high-profile responsibility, it’s one football coaches value and respect.
“The only time a long snapper’s name gets mentioned is if he doesn’t do a good job,” said Eastern special teams coordinator Heath Pulver, who got a kick out of a media inquiry regarding his long snapper.
“I’d say the job is about as important as it gets,” Pulver added. “Basically you’re like an upside-down quarterback. Let’s say that in a game we have nine PATs or field goals and four punts. That’s 13 plays where you have to be 100 percent. And I’d argue that Curtis is the best in the Big Sky.”
Indeed, Billen was named second-team preseason All-Big Sky Conference, adding to his three conference All-Academic honors as a mechanical engineering major. He’s been Eastern’s long snapper for four seasons and has never had a punt blocked.
But Billen didn’t arrive in this position on a whim. It took a lot of time and effort for him to reach this level of proficiency.
“The first time I long snapped was in fourth grade,” Billen said. “We were having a banquet at the end of the year and my coach said, ‘Hey, do you think you could snap?’ So we spent a half-hour working at it and I was pretty solid from the beginning.
“I’ve always been a team player, so I’ll do whatever I can to help the team,” Billen added. “Every place I went I was the only kid who could snap decent, so I was the long snapper. It’s funny, because growing up everyone always went for two after touchdowns, but we’d always kick it because I knew how to snap.”
From then on Billen worked at his craft. He took the initiative to seek out local long snappers for coaching, contacting people like former University of Washington long snapper Brendan Lopez, who took time out from dental school to work with Billen on a weekly basis. He attended summer long-snapping camps (yes, those are a thing) with organizations like Rubio Long Snapping. Billen said that at one point he was the sixth-ranked high school long snapper in the country.
Meanwhile, Billen was also a two-way standout at Mariner, earning All-Wesco honors at guard and also playing defensive end. Billen, who graduated in 2014, was set to walk on at Washington State when, at the last moment, Eastern came calling with a partial scholarship in hand. Billen accepted the offer and became an Eagle, initially hoping to play defense as well as be the long snapper.
“I asked (then-head coach Beau Baldwin) if I could play linebacker, too,” Billen recounted. “But he said, ‘No,’ they were going to treat me like a quarterback because I was the only long snapper they had and if I got injured they were screwed.”
So Billen has been strictly a long snapper at Eastern, which extended him a full scholarship prior to his sophomore season. That makes Billen responsible for two different types of snaps:
- There’s the snap to the punter, which requires a snap of 14.5 yards. An ideal snap to the punter will take 0.69 seconds from snapper to punter, with the ball arriving in a tight spiral at the punter’s right hip.
- Then there’s the snap to the holder for field goals and extra points, which is 8 yards. An ideal snap for a kick will take 1.2 seconds from snap to kick (which includes the hold) and arrive in a tight spiral the holder’s hands.
An elite long snapper will even be able to have the ball arrive with the laces pointed in the right direction, something Billen said he’s perfected this season. Billen said he’s satisfied with about 80 percent of his snaps — though for him a poor snap constitutes the ball reaching the punter at chest level instead of hip level.
The technique for punt and kick snaps is typically different as a punt snap requires more force, thus meaning the snapper usually has to involve some leg thrust in the snap. However, Billen has built up his arm strength — Pulver said Billen is one of the five strongest players on the team — and no longer needs to use his legs on punt snaps.
That’s proved valuable to Billen. During his first two seasons snapping at Eastern Billen wasn’t asked to block. But when Pulver took over as special teams coordinator in 2017 he required Billen to block. By using all upper body in his snaps Billen is able to position himself to block effectively, whereas if he involved his legs he’d have to lock out his knees and thus have poor blocking technique.
And that makes Billen a viable long-snapping candidate for the NFL, where snappers also have to block. Billen has some things going against him. He’s a little smaller than the average NFL long snapper, there’s a scarcity of jobs as each team carries just one long snapper, and Billen said politics also play a role in who lands pro long-snapping positions. But a couple NFL scouts have approached Pulver about Billen, who said he’d jump at the opportunity if it presented itself.
”I do have pro aspirations,” Billen said. “It’s hard to get recognized. If you’re a wide receiver you have stats, but all top-level long snappers snap a good ball. It’s hard to differentiate yourself. But I pride myself as one of the most athletic long snappers in the nation, and I’m just going to do what’s in my power to make sure I’m ready if someone wants me.”
Yes, long snapping may be an unusual way to progress to the higher levels of football, but Billen is proving it’s a viable route.
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