The specialists are the first players out on the field prior to Michigan football games, about an hour before the team runs out and touches the banner. If you arrive early, you watch kicker Matt Wile and punter Will Hagerup intently, to see if they look ready to make the plays that could determine the game.
But there’s another specialist on the field, one you don’t see.
He’s just as responsible for the success of the Wolverines’ special teams, but he might as well be invisible. He stands 14 yards in front of Hagerup, legs spread apart and the football in between, laces up. He hunches over and throttles the ball through his legs, a tight spiral directly into Hagerup’s right hip.
He plays the most specialized position in football, the one where success is expected so often that it goes unrecognized, but the slightest mistake — even if it’s just a couple of inches — can draw the scrutiny of an entire fan base.
He’s touched the ball on 42 of Michigan’s 152 points this season, but he couldn’t be happier that you don’t notice him.
He’s Scott Sypniewski, Michigan’s redshirt freshman long snapper, and he hopes you never say his name during games.
“If I could run onto the field and run off and no one know I was even there, that’s a job well done for me,” Sypniewski said.
It would take only one snap over Hagerup’s head for Sypniewski’s anonymity to disappear.
That’s why Sypniewski treats every snap the same, whether it’s a game-winning field goal attempt at Rutgers or a second-quarter punt against Appalachian State when the Wolverines already have a sizeable lead.
He has one goal on every play: a perfect snap. On punts, that entails sending the ball to Hagerup’s right hip. On field goals, perfection is hitting holder Kenny Allen in the palm of his right hand while he holds it out as a target before quickly turning the ball over.
This repetition drives Sypniewski. He’s been snapping since seventh grade when his youth team needed someone to play the position. He figured it was just another way to get on the field.
When he reached his junior year of high school, he began to see the position as a route to earning a college scholarship even though he also played guard and outside linebacker.
His father was a center at Western Michigan in the 1980s when Michigan coach Brady Hoke, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and special teams coordinator Dan Ferrigno coached there. Sypniewski saw the toll that battling in the trenches took on his father’s body. Playing long snapper would incur less damage.
Because of his father’s knowledge of snapping the football, Sypniewski worked with him at a turf facility each day during his junior and senior years of high school, taking between 20 to 50 snaps. The monotony of the job might bore other players, but Sypniewski focused on taking perfect snaps, not just snapping the ball for the sake of doing it.
The recruiting process for long snappers is the same as it is for every other position. Sypniewski attended numerous camps to get his name out there. His high school in Illinois was small and few college coaches attended games. But the offer Sypniewski wanted came from the people who already knew his name: the trio who coached his father in college that now coached at Michigan.
Many were surprised the Wolverines offered a coveted scholarship spot to a long snapper. Long snappers operate in the shadows on many teams, away from the watchful eye of coaches who either lack the knowledge to coach the position or are too busy with other responsibilities.
The opposite is the case at Michigan. In addition to playing linebacker during his playing career at Ball State, Hoke was a long snapper. He places a premium on the position, the reason he chooses to assign scholarships to long snappers.
Hoke pays close attention to Sypniewski during practice and games, helping him along throughout his first year as a starter. Hoke recognizes Sypniewski’s subtle inaccuracies when other coaches might not.
“He notices when I screw up because he also knows what it is to screw up, too,” Sypniewski said.
But Hoke also notices when Sypniewski is doing well. After Michigan’s win over Penn State in which Wile made three field goals, Hoke noted Sypniewski and the rest of the unit when asked about his kicker’s success.
“So we’re really, really, really excited, and you forget about Scott Sypniewski, the snapper,” Hoke said. “You forget about Kenny Allen, who holds, and how much they work together every day and how successful he was and a lot of it starts there, too.”
No matter how well Sypniewski does, the attention will always go to the person he’s snapping to. Wile earned Big Ten Co-Special Teams Player of the Week, but even he acknowledged that his kicking is the final product of the work of the unit.
Sypniewski is satisfied to labor in the realm of the unknown, he’s too focused on the task at hand. He doesn’t partake in elaborate celebrations after touchdowns because he doesn’t want to be too excited and make a mistake on the snap.
He spends the majority of his time on the sidelines preparing for the next time he needs to go out onto the field. He snaps to Allen, Hagerup or the portable net adjacent to Michigan’s bench. When the likelihood of a kick increases, Sypniewski advances toward the field.
When it’s time for the kick, he runs onto the field, makes the snap and runs off.
Hopefully you don’t notice.