WVU football: DePalma doesn't mind the pressure of snapping
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Life is not necessarily fair for John DePalma, which is an unusual thing to say for a special teams player with a college scholarship.
You might not know his name because his is one you're more likely to curse than to celebrate. He can do a hundred things right to no fanfare and one thing wrong to infuriate the masses.
Don't apologize. DePalma is used to the upside-down view of the world in which he lives. He is West Virginia's long snapper.
"You know you're never really going to be the star," the sophomore said. "You're only going to do something bad to be in the spotlight. It's a lot of pressure. It's one thing if a wide receiver messes up. He's got 15 other chances to make a catch and run for a touchdown. I have one snap."
Normally, it either goes to the holder's right hip before the kicker bots the football through the uprights, or it goes to the punter's hands so he can start his own operation and send the ball into the sky and down the field, hopefully high and far enough to let DePalma pursue a tackle.
If one of the snaps bends and the holder has to reach, the timing is messed up and the kick is doomed. If a snap is at the punter's feet, a TCU player can capitalize and zip in to block the kick and pick up a critical fourth-quarter touchdown.
But that's the life DePalma chose, the one he chased amidst considerable odds as a high school player at a small, private Catholic school. He played at Pinecrest Academy, in Cumming, Ga., and at a level that never featured opponents as fast or as large as the ones DePalma encountered last season.
"That," he said, "was just ridiculous."
He was used to having the size advantage. DePalma was a 6-foot-5 forward/center for the basketball team and scored more than 1,000 points in his career. That earned scholarship offers from schools inside the state at Berry College and Ogelthorpe University.
DePalma liked basketball. He learned to love snapping. Bryce Hanes was about the same size as DePalma in high school, but Hanes was a year older and he was going to snap in college. He was that good, good enough that he finds himself today at Ohio State. When DePalma was a junior, he studied and mimicked Hanes and then took over and took off when it was his time a year later.
In March 2012, a month after national signing day and with the Mountaineers looking to replace perfectionist Cody Nutter, DePalma signed his scholarship papers with WVU. He started every game and took all the reps during the season, save a few in the opener against Marshall.
Life was good, but, again, life is not fair.
"It used to be really easy," DePalma said, "but now we have Coach DeForest coming to us all the time and he really works with us a lot more.
"He gives us a lot more personal attention now and I think we're getting a lot better because of it."
Joe DeForest was WVU's defensive coordinator last season and it did not go well. He's now the special teams coordinator and he's milking something out of every minute of the 15 spring practices.
"Last year, we didn't really have anyone and it was more on our own and with more of a relaxed pace," DePalma said. "Now it's a lot more structured."
Your typical spring practice starts with special teams. DePalma snaps for field goals or punts and on some days both. On other days, he'll get a breather and step to the sideline to watch kickoff drills. After about 30 minutes or so, observers are made to leave and the coaches begin to work closely and carefully with the offense and defense.
DeForest and his specialists move to the separate practice field and DeForest puts them through their own practice. They work on all the snaps, holds and kicks and devote time to specific drills. A good one for DePalma is what he calls a "Machine Gun." He'll get in his stance and quickly snap 10 balls that DeForest spots.
Speed is one thing, but technique is another. A proper snap, one with his legs locked and his elbows thrust into this thighs, pulls DePalma a foot or so backward. That's dangerous torque. He tries to move straight back every time and make sure he doesn't veer left or right and send the ball sailing the same way.
At other times, DePalma will send 15-yard snaps toward a goal post and try to hit a spot again and again. He hit his mark six times in 10 attempts Tuesday, the third practice in four days.
"That's a pretty good day," he said. "That's right on the right hip."
DePalma does this as the only player at his position. Teams often have extra quarterbacks or punters or kickers to keep the starter or the key players there fresh. Coaches don't want to wear out arms, legs and hips in April. DePalma, kicker Josh Lambert and punter/holder Michael Molinari are the only players the Mountaineers have until relief and competition arrive in the summer.
Truth be told, DePalma, who runs stadium steps after practice and is trying to become a faster, smoother runner to better cover punts, can get tired and sore. But he's taken measures against all of that. He's been stretching for years, which helps him get that flat back before snaps and keeps him from tweaking his lower extremities.
"I pride myself on how flexible my hamstrings are," he said.
He'd like to add to that list, of course, and figures to do so in the next three seasons, especially as DeForest takes such an active, aggressive role in molding his players.
"I did not think it was this hard," DePalma said, "but I wasn't as good as I am now."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.