The first major upset of the college football season fell in Andrew Zink’s hands.
South Alabama had just tied Mississippi State with less than a minute left on the first full Saturday of the season, and Zink, playing his first game for the Jaguars, set up with the ball between his legs at the 2-yard line.
The freshman long snapper needed to nail the snap. If he dropped it in precisely, Gavin Patterson could kick the game-winning extra point.
Zink started to mumble under his breath in rhythm. It’s what he does when he finds himself overcome by nerves. He raps — usually Mac Miller. He can’t remember what the exact song for this particular moment, but his snap was good and USA took a one-point lead on the Bulldogs in Starkville, Miss.
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“I just thought back to the Palmetto game,” said Zink, referring to Manatee’s last-second field goal to beat the Tigers one year earlier. “Right before I snapped that ball against Palmetto, I was rapping some song that I had memorized. Right before I snapped that ball at Mississippi State, I was rapping a song I’d memorized. It’s just something that’s always worked for me.”
Snapping is as much a mental exercise as a physical one, and finding ticks like Zink’s are what can turn a competent long snapper into a consistent one. Zink has had most of the physical ability down since he first learned the trade as a sixth grader from a cousin in his grandmother’s front yard. Turning Zink into an unthinking, unfazed long-snapping machine during his senior year was the goal for Craig Montgomery, the former Cardinal Mooney tight end who wants to turn the 941 area code into a long-snapping hotbed. Zink is the area’s first major success story.
I remember going out for the first snap and thinking about how much I've prepared for this, seeing the 70,000 fans in the stadium, going out there I was like, Can't believe I finally got that done.
Andrew Zink, South Alabama long snapper on upsetting Mississippi State
Zink was offered a scholarship by South Alabama just a week before signing day and is in position to be a four-year starter for the Jaguars. His true freshman season concludes Friday against Air Force in the Arizona Bowl at 5:30 p.m.
“I’m just trying to get Sarasota to be the spot that does it for snappers,” Montgomery said.
Zink made Montgomery’s first an easy one, though. He was a long snapper from a young age and became a starter for the Manatee as a sophomore. By his junior year, Zink decided to focus exclusively on snapping. He stopped playing offensive line and started traveling to Daytona Beach a few times a month to train at One on One Kicking Camps.
He made Hurricane special teams coordinator Dennis Stallard’s job easier. Stallard can count the number of full-time long snappers he has had on one hand, and it’s even harder for him to recall someone who was exclusive to the position for multiple seasons.
“They kept getting bigger and I didn’t,” Zink said of linemen he played with and against, “and I thought I could do pretty good at this long-snapping job.”
But long snappers, even a talent such as Zink, are far from guaranteed a Division I shot. Scholarship offers out of high school are rare, and players typically have to settle for starting out as a preferred walk-on.
Montgomery helped provide a path toward perfection. Once a week during the season, Montgomery works with local long snappers at Extra Innings – Sarasota and gives those in the area, such as Zink, a convenient, on-call option.
His focus is primarily mental. Zink’s form was basically flawless when the two started working together, so he instead worked with Zink on clearing his mind and self-diagnosing issues that pop up during the course of a game or season.
“I wanted them to become their own snap doctor,” Montgomery said. “Snapping’s a weird position because it’s all mental. It’s not a hard movement. It’s like shooting a foul shot. You just have to hit it 100 percent of the time.”
Montgomery helped earn Zink a scholarship at South Alabama and former Braden River linebacker Chase Balliette one with Division II Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D. He helped turn former Saint Stephen’s lineman Jacob Westberry into a Football Championship Subdivision prospect into a preferred walk-on with Fresno State, for which he served as the backup long snapper this fall. He works with Manatee linebacker Garrett Ware, Bradenton Christian lineman Dalton Francis, Hurricanes freshman Anthony McCance and Pirates freshman Travis Long.
Zink provides him a shining example of the value of this niche skill. And Montgomery, who tried out multiple times for the Chicago Bears, could have one for years to come.
“Andrew is by far the best long snapper that I’ve ever coached in my life,” Stallard said, “and I wouldn’t be shocked if he gets an opportunity beyond college. He’s that good.”
Who: South Alabama vs. Air Force
What: Arizona Bowl
When: 5:30 p.m.
Where: Tucson, Ariz.