MADISON, Wis. — The snap slipped from James McGuire’s hands, and he knew immediately that trouble was imminent. It fluttered in the cool October air, drifting lower and lower toward the turf until Wisconsin punter Drew Meyer bent down to scoop and salvage the play.
Instead, Meyer couldn’t handle the ball, he was chased backward and ultimately had the kick partially blocked. With Wisconsin clinging to a 7-3 lead during the second quarter against Michigan State last season, the Spartans had recovered the ball at the Badgers’ 11-yard line. And the person most at fault was a walk-on whose name most fans didn’t even know.
“That was just tough,” McGuire said. “It was my first real snap in college that got away from me. After that, I bounced back. I think I just forced myself to be mentally tougher. I tried to get over it really fast and not think about it too much.”
Though the Badgers’ defense pushed back and forced a punt on the ensuing possession, McGuire’s mistake spoke to just how much the seemingly mundane task of snapping can potentially change the course of a game and, in some cases, a season.
“You have to focus on it mentally over and over again thousands of times in the offseason and in fall camp and then be only judged on a handful of reps in a game,” said Jeff Genyk, in his first season as Wisconsin’s special teams coach. “And you know everybody who’s watched a football game, when the ball goes over the punter or the holder’s head, that snapper’s face is now on national television for about 10 to 30 seconds. Other than that, they’re going to get no publicity.”
Certainly, life as a snapper can be a lonely existence. But McGuire, a redshirt junior at Wisconsin, has found company from a familiar face this season — redshirt freshman Connor Udelhoven, a high school teammate from Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, Minn.
The odds of two players from the same high school remaining teammates in college aren’t particularly astronomical. The odds of two long snappers from the same high school playing on the same team — let alone both playing Division I football — are highly uncommon.
It has made for a bond that has only grown over their time together in college — through good times and bad.
“He’s been fantastic,” Udelhoven said. “Since I got here, he’s kind of been an older brother to me. Sometimes you run into that the guy in front of you doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. James isn’t like that at all.”
Added McGuire: “It’s been wonderful. He’s like a little brother, I guess. He’s the nicest guy in the world, so he’s really easy to get along with. We’ve become great friends since he got here. It’s all been good.”
Finding a niche
McGuire and Udelhoven will be the first tell you they’d have no business being Division I football players if not for their ability to accurately throw a football between their legs from great distances.
“As much as it hurts to say no, I don’t think so,” said McGuire, who played linebacker in high school. “I remember when I was here visiting, they asked me, ‘Do you want to try to play linebacker, too?’ I was at practice and I was like, ‘I don’t think I could do it.’ I take pride in what I do as a specialist.”
Udelhoven, meanwhile, played center in high school. But at 5-11, 223 pounds, he is dwarfed by the behemoths up front at Wisconsin. Current starting center Dallas Lewallen is 6-6 and 322 pounds.
“I’d be pretty undersized to be playing the offensive line,” Udelhoven said. “You’ve seen the giants. They’re 6-7, 6-8, three bills. It’s really been a lot of fun being able to play for the Badgers.”
The path to a Division I team began for McGuire as a freshman in high school when he started fooling around with snapping. Though he admitted to knowing next to nothing about the craft, McGuire soon began taking pointers from senior teammate Nick Murphy, a Cretin-Derham Hall long snapper who would go on to play at the University of Iowa.
In 2010, Kohl’s Professional Camps rated McGuire as the No. 1 long snapper in his class. And he garnered interest from Wisconsin following an excellent outing at the school’s summer camp for specialists.
Udelhoven took to long snapping as an eighth grader when his team didn’t have anybody to play the position. By the time Udelhoven was a freshman, McGuire was the starting long snapper on the varsity team, and he took Udelhoven under his wing, showing him some of the intricacies to snapping.
Cretin-Derham Hall varsity football coach Mike Scanlan said there was never enough time allocated in practice to work on snapping, so both players found time on their own to master their craft. When game time arrived, they were mentally prepared for the role.
“Each of them would hit you with a fastball in the chest from 15 yards,” Scanlan said. “That’s exactly what you’re looking for.”
Udelhoven hadn’t intended to follow in McGuire’s footsteps. But he was a big fan of Wisconsin as an academic institution, and he had been named a five-star long snapper by Kohl’s Professional Camps.
The opportunity to merge his passion for Wisconsin and football was too good to pass up once the Badgers recognized they could bring in McGuire’s protégé.
“Fortunately I ended up getting a call from the Badgers,” Udelhoven said. “James was from the same high school, and he had a great attitude towards the game and showed a brand that the high school comes out with. I think it was very fortunate that he kind of paved the way for me to come here.”
McGuire could have decided to shut Udelhoven out in the cold or sulk about having to compete for the starting job. Instead, the two have remained close at Wisconsin, even as Udelhoven has proven himself to be worthy of playing time.
During fall camp, McGuire’s consistency on field goal snaps waned. There was a stretch when most of his snaps were low as he struggled to place the ball in a smaller strike zone. Udelhoven, meanwhile, excelled in short snaps.
As a result, both now play on game day. McGuire serves as the team’s long snapper, while Udelhoven handles the short snaps.
“I was hoping to get the field goal job,” McGuire said. “I had it last year. But Udy did a great job all camp. I had a little hiccup there and he stepped in and did a wonderful job. He’s been doing a great job, so I’ve got no complaints.”
Genyk praised both players for their desire to succeed and strong mental makeup, which are key components to continued improvement. He said that, at many schools, the long snappers are on their own in practice. At Wisconsin, Genyk spends time in meeting rooms reviewing film with them. On the field, he typically takes 15 to 20 minutes at the beginning of practice to focus on the craft of snapping.
“Both of them are very good workers,” Genyk said. “They’re both quiet. They’re both very appreciative, great attitude of gratitude as it pertains to being here. And they really wanted to be here. They’re both good students. The work ethic is very much mental.”
The pressures of the job each player holds will continue to mount as games grow in importance this season. That stress likely begins this week when No. 20 Wisconsin travels to face Arizona State in a hostile environment.
If both players do their jobs correctly, no one will remember their names — just the way they like it. But no matter the outcome on the field, they will still have each other.
“The more we go unnoticed, the better,” Udelhoven said. “As long as we get appreciation from the fellas, just the specialists inside, that’s all we really need. Being able to play in front of 80,000 fans is just an unbelievable experience. You don’t need much more gratification than that.”