Quick, who’s the long snapper on your favorite football team?
Unless you’re an absolute diehard, obsessed with the intricacies of cap space and the waiver-wire, it’s probably hard to remember his name. After all, the long snapper has nothing more than a few brief cameos in any one game. It doesn’t make him any less important—if he were an Academy Award winner, he’d be Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. But it’s a position that gets lost on the casual fan.
Leonard Skubal will be the first to tell you that.
The now-graduated starting long snapper for Boston College football has spent his time in Chestnut Hill living in the background. Quietly, he finished his career as the only Eagle to start—as much as a long snapper can start, that is—every single game. Players know him not for what he did on the football field, but how he impacted them off it. For five years—the first came as a redshirt, back when Frank Spaziani still wore his red zip-up jacket and visor—Skubal has been the leader of a special teams unit that has seen some highs and a lot more lows, touching the lives of the some 150 players who have passed through the program since.
But it took 51 tries, all the way to the weekend of his final game, to finally make a visible and lasting impact for the Eagles.
Okay, so that’s only sort of true. Yet ask any player on BC, and he’ll certainly agree—that win was just as big.
Skubal’s victory didn’t come at Ford Field in the Quick Lane Bowl but in a small warehouse just outside of Detroit a few days earlier. There, the Eagles and their opponents, the Maryland Terrapins, partook in a game called fowling. Chris Hutt, a local inventor, developed the beer pong-inspired amalgamation of football and bowling a couple of years ago, and invited the two 6-6 Power Five teams to come down to Hamtramck, Mich. to give it a shot.
At first, the two teams just competed against one another for fun. But Hutt insisted on a game between the opponents. So both sides picked an offensive, defensive, special teams, and coaching representative for the showdown. For BC, that group consisted of defensive back Lukas Denis, quarterback Anthony Brown, offensive line coach Justin Frye, and Skubal, as chosen by John Johnson. Both sides went back and forth, keeping the game close. But with one pin left for the Eagles, Skubal nixed throwing the ball and did what he did best instead: he long snapped it.
The pin fell, and his teammates mobbed him. Later, he’d appear on SportsCenter Top 10, the most unusual of places to find a long snapper. Generally, they’re on a different type of list.
“I have seen them make Not Top 10,” said star defensive end Harold Landry, “but that was crazy though. Good for him. That was an amazing thing to do.”
No one who knew Skubal could\ ever stop talking about him. But at last, with the drop of a pin in a Detroit warehouse, everyone knew his name.
“In seventh grade, Coach will just say that the team needs a long snapper, and you have to be the guy.”
That’s typically how it happens, according to Skubal’s mentor, Sean Flaherty. It’d be a lie to say that anyone who dreams of playing football picks long snapper as their position of choice. But the position really found him.
Around the age of 10, Skubal began playing for the Paw Pro Tigers, a Pop Warner team near his hometown of Deerfield Beach, Fla. He found the field as a linebacker and center. But after noticing how good Skubal was at snapping in the shotgun, and knowing that, given the family’s lack of height—Skubal only stands at 5-foot-10—his father, John, had an idea.
“I was seeing how fast they were, and I told Len, ‘We’re going to make a long snapper out of you,’” he said.
John bought a ton of instructional DVDs on how to teach his son the most specialized of football crafts. The two often went to local parks so that Skubal could practice knocking tennis balls off traffic cones from increasing distances. He began to work with Shane Hackney, one of the best long snappers in the industry. Hackney helped him understand the significance of hitting a target that, for a punt, is the size of a tennis ball and for a field goal, just the size of a dime. John even put a poster in his room to remind him of every long snapper’s mantra: “Aim small, miss small.”
“My dad saw it in me before I did,” Skubal said. “He knew that snapping could take me to the next level.”
Soon enough, Skubal’s team was the only one that could punt on fourth down, because no one else had a long snapper good enough to get it that far back. And Skubal loved it, sometimes even more than playing linebacker. He felt that there just existed a sense of pride that other positions cannot match. And with that pride comes an unsung responsibility, even if it lasts just under a second.
“For this small time frame in the game, you have complete control,” Skubal said. “The ball is in your hands.”
When it came time for high school, the crown jewel of Florida came calling: St. Thomas Aquinas. The school that has produced players such as Michael Irvin, Geno Atkins, and Joey Bosa—not to mention his superstar teammate, Rashad Greene—would now be taking a chance on Skubal.
But still, Skubal didn’t get playing time, not as a long snapper at least. The Raiders already had a starter at the position, Jordan Cowart, who would soon go onto the University of Notre Dame. Instead, Skubal was relegated to the junior varsity team, where he played weakside linebacker.
It turned out to be a great stroke of luck—in a local gym, he met his best friend, Cole Champion. Skubal and Champion didn’t hit it off at first, as both thought the other just tried too hard. When they began to get to know one another, Champion realized that they had the same goal: to remove the chip from their shoulders and prove their height didn’t matter. Champion, a future captain and four-year starting defensive back at Yale University, said that every second he and Skubal trained was necessary to make the varsity team, because that’s what their coaches told them to do.
“Extra wasn’t extra for us,” Champion said. “It was expected.”
So Skubal beefed up. And he caught the eye of one coach that would change his life.
“I would drive to Boston for Skubal.”
Rob Wenger was completely serious, too. The strength and conditioning coach at the University of Minnesota has been all over the place over the last two months. After four years at Western Michigan “rowing the boat,” capped off by a 13-1 season and an appearance in the 2017 Cotton Bowl, he accompanied P.J. Fleck to Minneapolis to lead the Golden Gophers. But he had no hesitation to take the time to speak about a player he loves so much.
“He’s all-time for me,” Wenger said.
Though Skubal achieved much of his career success on his own and with the help of his father, it was with Wenger’s support that he moved toward that next step. Wenger had just returned to St. Thomas Aquinas, his alma mater, from an assistant’s job at Rutgers to coach linebackers for the Raiders—he helped promote Skubal to varsity. Given the fact that St. Thomas Aquinas competes against national teams, not to mention the tough schools in South Florida, Wenger had concern about Skubal’s lack of size. But he was blown away with the mental aspects of Skubal’s game, and the amount of effort he put into every practice.
“A lot of players memorize their assignment,” Wenger said. “He conceptualized it … He played harder than anyone else.”
Wenger left during Skubal’s junior year to take an assistant coaching job at Allegheny College. But he returned in 2011 to serve as St. Thomas Aquinas’ defensive coordinator, inspired in large part by the potential of Skubal and his friends. When Wenger returned, he was blown away by how much Skubal had grown in just under two years apart—not just with intangible skills, but also the physical ones.
That jump pushed Wenger to have Skubal start as the Raiders’ weakside linebacker. His performance and preparation set the stage for arguably the most exciting moment of Skubal’s career.
“If you write this in this story, he’d love it,” Wenger said.
Skubal had emphasized that the best part about playing at St. Thomas Aquinas was the crowds. Unlike most high schools, those bleachers don’t just fill up with parents and cheerleader girlfriends. Once the weekend hits, Brian Piccolo Stadium, named after the inspirational former Chicago Bears running back and alum, resembles a Dillon Panthers game in Friday Night Lights. With those tens of thousands in the stands, Skubal felt ready for the biggest moments.
“In a way, I was kind of ready for the ACC environments,” Skubal said.
No game was bigger than St. Thomas Aquinas’ matchup with De La Salle High School of Concord, Calif., live on national television. After a 45-minute lightning delay, the nation’s two top high school programs battled in a tough first half. Aquinas was up 10-0 with under two minutes to go in the second quarter, but De La Salle, led by future Wisconsin quarterback Bart Houston, was driving to cut the lead and flip the momentum.
Facing 2nd-and-11 at around midfield, Wenger called WAR—a linebacker blitz in which the middle and strongside linebackers would brush the quarterback along with the defensive line. If that was successful, Skubal, as the weakside linebacker, should patrol the middle to knock down a dump to a slot receiver or linebacker. If his teammates did their job, Skubal might get lucky.
Sure enough, Champion and Tyler Drake forced Houston to make a desperation heave off his back foot to prevent a 10-yard sack. Skubal shaded over from right to left, eyeing the ball. He easily undercut the pattern in front of a De La Salle receiver to slide for the pick. As he got up, he yelled while pumping his left fist and thrusting out his chest—big enough to show his enthusiasm, but slight enough to prevent any in-your-face reactions from his opponents. And for the first time, on that ESPN2 broadcast, he heard his name.
“He couldn’t play a down at the worst public school in Broward County, and now he’s making a pick against arguably the best high school in the country,” Wenger said. “The kid who’s done everything right his entire career was in the right spot.”
“It’s always great to give some love to the long snapper.”
Sean Flaherty knows the plight of his position very well. The four-year starter at BC prior to Skubal is aware that the allowable margin of error is razor-thin in this business. But most players can afford some mistakes. Even in the recruiting process, in those simulated drills, a quarterback can miss a few targets or a wide receiver can have one or two drops and not expect his stock to plummet. That isn’t the case for long snappers—you have to be perfect.
“You can find any long snapper that can throw a beautiful spiral, but if you’re going to be 1-of-10, you’re terrible,” Flaherty said. “As a long snapper, you’ve got to be 400-for-400.”
While Skubal had his prideful moments as a linebacker for St. Thomas Aquinas, his most pivotal moment was his move to the long snapper role. We could talk about those scenes of his year setting up punts and placekicks. But as with any special teams play, if you can recall a long snap, that means it probably wasn’t a good one—a plight Scott Norwood and Ray Finkle know all too well.
“The hallmark of a good snapper is consistency,” Skubal said. “You could have one bad snap, and that’s all you’re remembered for.”
Skubal never had to worry about that at St. Thomas Aquinas. But what set him apart was his past as a linebacker. Recruiters were impressed by Skubal’s ability to get off the snap perfectly, and then run down the field to make a tackle. Wenger said that coaches often try to search for a long snapper that can do both, but rarely can find one.
“You can’t get away with a guy that throws a strike and can’t cover,” he said.
But with those skills, Skubal caught the eye of two in particular: Ryan Day and Sean Desai. Day, the wide receivers coach at BC, offered Skubal an official visit. Desai, the director of football operations for the University of Miami, took even more interest. But when Day took the offensive coordinator job at Temple University and Desai left for Chestnut Hill as special teams coach, BC lined up as the best option.
On his trip to Chestnut Hill, Skubal stayed with Flaherty, a redshirt senior entering his final season at BC that fall of 2012. Flaherty’s first judgment of Skubal was the one he had been getting all his life: “Hey, that kid is kind of small.” But when Skubal bent over and got into his motion, Flaherty was blown away. He noticed Skubal’s quick hands and good instincts, how focused he was when he got into his stance. And, of course, Skubal had unparalleled consistency.
“You’re only as good as your last snap,” Flaherty said. “Len has never had any bad snaps, so he never had to worry about this.”
Skubal, however, needed insurance from then-BC head coach Spaziani that he had a place on the Heights. Most long snappers come into school as a walk-on, and have to earn a scholarship along the way. But Skubal, who had other offers, wanted more security than that, especially given the calls for Spaziani’s head by the BC media. His father remembers Skubal challenging Spaziani, asking him point blank: “What is your future here?” But Spaziani reassured him, regardless of his own career.
“I remember [Spaziani] saying, ‘If you do your job, you’re going to be my snapper for the next four years,’” John said.
So Skubal accepted the winter weather and the maroon jacket to become the first person in his family to go to college.
Most freshmen in practice don’t get the opportunity to hone their skills, especially when they are bound to redshirt like Skubal. But given that most teams only carry two long-snapping specialists at most, Skubal didn’t have the opportunity to sit and watch. He immediately became the second-stringer, and never missed a snap in practice.
“It was his first day and he never messed up,” Flaherty said. “He proved himself to the coaches, and to his peers, that he can do it.”
Skubal just didn’t realize he’d have to prove himself again.
“These new [coaches] come in and you’re just another number on the roster.”
Despite those reassurances in spring ball 2012, Spaziani was fired after a 2-10 campaign that year. Naturally, Skubal worried about his future at BC.
I had happened to run into Steve Addazio last month in a Conte Forum elevator when I brought up this piece on Skubal. The head coach of BC football has a busy schedule between recruiting trips and spring practice. But he would make time to talk about Skubal: 12 p.m., in his office on the third floor of the Yawkey Athletic Center the next day.
Turns out, Skubal’s fears were unfounded. Addazio had known about Skubal from Day, who came with him from Temple to be BC’s offensive coordinator. One day, Addazio’s special teams coach, Sean McGowan, saw Skubal working in the offseason on the ramp of the Beacon Street Garage in the rain. Skubal was practicing snapping uphill, something Hackney had taught him to help get off blocks easier. Once he saw that, McGowan knew Addazio had his guy. Not long after, Skubal got that coveted scholarship. Champion recalled Skubal telling him this story as the prime example of how much he cared.
“Working as hard as you can when nobody is watching,” Champion said. “That’s Len.”
Skubal handled high-pressure situations with ease—the places where you can’t hear yourself think, that’s where he thrives. Plus, from those days at St. Thomas Aquinas, stepping into Doak Campbell or Lane Stadium wasn’t much of a difference.
His freshman year, Skubal even notched the best pre-fowling snap of his career—as hard as that might be for him to differentiate. The Eagles had clinched bowl eligibility the week before against North Carolina State—a shocking, one-year turnaround—and had Maryland on the ropes in the two teams’ final ACC matchup. At Byrd Stadium, the teams were deadlocked at 26 with no time on the clock. Addazio sent out Nate Freese, who at that point had not missed a kick all season, to try and win it with a 52-yard field goal. The snap and hold were good, but Freese pushed it to the left.
Special teamers don’t usually get multiple chances. Randy Edsall gave them one.
The Maryland head coach tried to freeze Freese—something Skubal asserts is impossible—and failed by calling timeout. When the unit lined up again, Freese drilled it, and the Eagles walked away with a win.
“As a specialist, you’re used to having one shot, but when we got another, I knew Nate was going to put it through the uprights,” Skubal said.
BC wouldn’t have that much success on special teams during Skubal’s next three seasons. The Eagles were plagued with inconsistency from the kicking position following Freese’s departure. In 2014, BC struggled to convert extra points, the highest profile of which came in the Pinstripe Bowl—Skubal, however, knew his snap was good for that one. The next year, BC struggled with field goals, losing at least two games—3-0 to Wake Forest and 9-7 to Duke—as a result.
BC has also cycled through special teams coaches. McGowan left to become defensive coordinator at Yale after the 2014 season. Coleman Hutzler came in for a year before jumping ship to South Carolina. In 2016, Al Washington stepped up to take the role. This fall, BC will debut Ricky Brown, the program’s fourth special teams coach in as many years.
But as BC couldn’t avoid all of these struggles, Skubal adjusted his own role on the team. Despite the revolving door of coaches, Addazio’s system for special teams has largely remained the same. Skubal gradually grew from a contributor in his small niche to a leader of the special teams, a de facto captain without the “C” on his jersey. And as time went on, he built the respect of all of his teammates and coaches by understanding that he had to do more than just his own job. Despite these hard times, he has worked with players, like kicker Mike Knoll, to raise their confidence and work on technique. He won’t take full credit for it, but Knoll’s breakout 2016 campaign, in which he provided the most field-goal consistency since Freese, was in part due to his influence.
“I think the downs show you more about who you are than the ups,” Skubal said. “I’ve always taken a lot of pride in my guys.”
“What a way to go out.”
Flaherty remembered only having that simple reply to Skubal, his protege and friend, after getting “the big text” about the fowling snap. At the turn of the next hour, he flipped to ESPN to catch the video. But what struck Flaherty wasn’t the snap itself, but rather the way the team began to jump around him, cheering and celebrating.
“He’s not the center of attention—he’s the long snapper,” Flaherty said. “That says something about what kind of leader he is.”
While he loves being the leader, Skubal prefers not being the center of attention. For BC, all he wanted was to contribute in his own little way without taking much credit. He believes that long snapping was the perfect role for him, where he could control the game without people knowing. Skubal pays it forward, too. He has helped Jimmy Martin and Alec Lindstrom, the latter of whom is an early enrollee, learn the trade so that they can take over for him. He has also volunteered a considerable amount of time with a long snapper recruit that you might see one day playing college football, perhaps even at BC.
The best moment of his playing days came a few days after fowling. The Eagles would win the Quick Lane Bowl, 36-30, over Maryland, the same team over whom Skubal claimed his most memorable win back in 2013—it was the program’s first bowl win since 2007. As always, Skubal didn’t play much of a factor in that victory—Knoll actually wasn’t on his game, as a shanked field goal and two missed PATs kept the Terrapins in the game for longer than Addazio felt comfortable.
But for one day, Skubal relished his personal victory in fowling.
As he went back to the hotel that day, he called his father to let him know he would be on SportsCenter in the Top 10. Skubal told him that he was surprised he hit the pin. But his dad reminded him of who he is, how hard he has worked, how good he is at his craft, and how consistent he had been over his time at BC. John told his son, “Len, why wouldn’t you hit the pin?”
And as he listened to his name for the first time on ESPN as the whole country heard it too, Skubal smiled.
“You know what, dad?” Skubal said. “You’re absolutely right.”