Walk-on junior Zach Smith is getting ready for his third season as USC's snapper. After handling place kicks for the Trojans as a true freshman, Smith added punt snapping duties to his resume last season.
Smith has been a mainstay for the Trojans, with a flawless snapping record over his 17 game career. But he was very close to not attending USC at all.
“It was really kind of lucky actually," Smith said regarding his path to becoming a Trojan. "I was at a national snapping camp and old USC kicker Joe Houston happened to see me. He gave coach [John] Baxter a call, and it pretty much happened within and hour that I was committed to USC."
With USC under sanctions, Smith was brought into the program as a preferred walk-on.
"They told me I had a good shot at starting my freshman year doing field goal and extra point snaps," Smith said. "I came in as a preferred walk on and showed up at training camp and just competed, and I was able to do field goal and PATs my freshman year.”
What made things more interesting for Smith is that the Trojans already had a scholarship snapper on the roster in 2013, redshirt sophomore Peter McBride.
"Baxter told me they’re just going to play whoever performs best in training camp and I think Peter and I actually worked together well as a team," he said. "We helped each other out, he kind of showed me how to get my mind right for games and how to handle pressure during practice and games. I think we worked well together and we just competed and pushed each other.”
In high school Smith played on both of the offensive and defensive lines, but he was able to separate himself as a long snapper.
“I started my sophomore year of high school playing football, I actually played water polo my freshman year," he said. "I just realized I was decent at snapping for the JV level, like I could do it the best out of all the guys on the team, so I just kind of did it for fun. Then I realized that you can go to college off of this so I started teaching myself and getting better.
"Then before my senior year is when I went to snapping camp at Rubio Long Snapping.”
Most football coaches can teach players how to block and tackle, but few can offer tips on long snapping techniques.
"For the most part I was self-taught up until before my senior year," he said. "I was good, but I was just a really raw snapper, and when I went to the camps they really showed me proper technique, and just kind of sharpened me up. That’s where I really saw a big improvement in my skills.”
Despite the distinct differences, Smith has excelled at both the long punt snaps and the shorter placekick snaps.
“You just have to cover for punt snaps, so you know timing is a big deal and you really have to be accurate," Smith said. "It's just different because you have to cover, and sometimes you’ll have a guy hit off the line and you have to shed a block and maybe get downfield.
"The snap is obviously different, like different location and different distance, but we’ve done so many reps that it’s not really a huge deal. Your body kind of knows what it’s ready to do.”
Unlike a field goal, after snapping for a punt, Smith gets to jump into the action with his teammates on the punt coverage team.
"It's a lot of fun. I had a tackle in the Holiday Bowl, which is pretty sweet so I love covering, it’s a lot of fun.”
Smith and the other specialists on the team all hang out together at practice. Often times they are off on their own, playing hacky sack with the football or throwing passes to each other.
But this spring has been a bit challenging for the specialists, just trying to find open space inside the track around Cromwell Field.
"Since we are on the turf we have limited space so we try to take the field whenever we can," he said. "We’re not doing much, we just punt and kick to the returners at the beginning of practice while everyone’s doing a stretch. Field goal period is really the only special teams thing that we’re involved in so we just kind of stay loose on the sideline. You don't want to get too overwhelmed or focused because you have to be relaxed as a specialist.”
While the specialists tend to hang out together, they are friends with the position players, too.
"We’re close with everyone on the team. They’ll just laugh at us because we don’t do anything during practice," Smith said. "We’re close with everyone, but we obviously spend a lot of time together. We do position meetings in the morning and we’re in the weight room lifting together. But because we don’t do position meetings with Johnny Nansen, it’s kind of on us to watch film so we just correct ourselves.
“We don’t really have a position coach that actually coaches our technique, so for the most part we’re self-coached. Even when Baxter was here he didn’t work with us much. When I’m messing up, I usually know what I need to correct. And same goes for the kickers, they know what’s up, or what they need to change.”
Film study ends up being important for Smith as a way to make sure he is on the right track.
"I watch film after practice, that’s where I learned I need to extend my arms more. They go kind of under me and my snaps are inconsistent. You just play around with it, trial and error. Spring is really a great time to allow yourselves to make mistakes and then just correct it.”
Check out Smith's trick-shot snapping video he made coming out of high school:
Stay tuned to USCFootball.com for more updates on the team as spring football comes to a close this weekend.
Ryan Abraham has been the publisher of USCFootball.com since 1996. You can follow him on Twitter at @InsideTroy or email him at email@example.com .