WSU's Den Bleyker on the art of long snapping

PULLMAN – Amidst the shuffling on the Washington State special teams units, Alex Den Bleyker remains a constant. The senior long snapper enters the 2014 spring session as a third-year starter, and an unsung member of the Cougar football team. Cougfan.com spoke recently with Den Bleyker, who offered some noteworthy insights on all things long snapping and special teams...

"It's very important to have some experience going into the season, especially with new guys around," Den Bleyker said, having started all 13 games for the Cougars in 2013.

This year's crop of special teams newcomers features redshirt freshman Erik Powell who's listed atop the WSU spring depth chart at kicker.

"Powell is probably going to kick for us this year so I'm trying to make him feel as comfortable as he can this year, getting him the best snaps I can," Den Bleyker said. "It's very important to help them stay calm, besides just when we're on the field but just talking through any problems they might have."

Den Bleyker said the same applies when tossing the rock to redshirt junior Wes Concepcion, who heads into the spring as the primary option at punter.

"I know he likes his snaps a little low so if I can keep it down between his knees to his waist, help him feel comfortable back there since he doesn't have time to get it off," Den Bleyker said. "That's basically all I can do, put it where he likes and give the best protection that I can."

LONG SNAPPER IS a position that typically goes unnoticed, until something goes wrong. Den Bleyker said long snappers receive a lot of blame but he enjoys the fact they tend to fly under the radar because it usually means they're doing their job.

The concept of being noted for individual mistakes rather than routinely praised for their triumphs is one Den Bleyker said was instilled in him by his long snapping guru Chris Rubio.

"Rubio used to tell me a quarterback could throw 4 touchdowns and 2 picks and everyone would be criticizing him, but if a long snapper makes one mistake the whole game is on them," Den Bleyker said.

Rubio, a former long snapper at UCLA, served as a both a mentor for Den Bleyker, and a guide into the college ranks. Though Den Bleyker became interested in the position during his youth, it wasn't until his sophomore year at Moreau Catholic High in Hayward, Calif. that he began to take the craft seriously.

Every other weekend he would link up with Rubio in Los Angeles for workouts in addition to tagging along on college campus tours.

While being recruited by San Jose State and Bowling Green, Den Bleyker instead set his sights on the Palouse but there was no scholarship offer. He sat behind then-senior Zach Enyeart his first season before appearing in the final five games of his freshman campaign in 2011. The next season he appeared in all 12 games for Washington State.

During that time the thought of still being a walk-on remained embedded in his brain.

"Sometimes that pressure can get to you," he said, "but you gotta block that out, focus and say on this one play I'm going to do my job and if they do that enough times they'll recognize what I can do."

As his loan money became scarce and out-of-state tuition grew steeper, Den Bleyker decided to chat with WSU special teams coach Eric Russell after his sophomore season, simply telling him, "I need a scholarship." It was after that he and Russell came to an agreement, but not before Russell displayed an emotional initial reaction.

"He was a little angry at first," Den Bleyker said. "He's a guy that'll yell and scream at you but that's because he's so passionate. But he understood where I was coming from, it's obviously not easy to pay for school.

"He was real helpful, he did all he could do for me, he talked to Coach Leach for me. We made a deal that if I got my grades up to a certain level they would put me on (scholie)."

Once the summer grades rolled in and Den Bleyker had upped his GPA to above a 3.0, the deal was done.

"My family, they were so excited for me, my mom was almost in tears," he said.

THOUGH HE ACCOMPLISHED his goal of earning a scholie, he in no way viewed it as a time to let his foot off the gas. Den Bleyker said he understands scholarships are earned from year to year.

Den Bleyker calls his 2013 season the best of his three years at WSU, but this spring he continues to pinpoint areas in need of improvement.

"My big overall goal is to improve my protection," said Den Bleyker, who is listed at just 5-10, 246-pounds this spring. "It's real hard going from finishing your snap to coming up to guard somebody."

And although education and playing time enticed Den Bleyker to don the Crimson and Gray, it's the college town environment he's grown to enjoy the most.

"Everything's focused on you," he said. "The whole city stops what they're doing on Saturday to watch you play, that's a great feeling."

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