When he walks across the Horseshoe without wearing Gamecocks football paraphernalia, he’s unlikely to be recognized as a member of the team. Sometimes, people don’t believe he’s on the squad even when told that he is. It’s fair to consider Matthew Bailey an unsung member of the University of South Carolina football team, but he’s not the only one.
Football is an interesting sport in that some players wear many hats — or in this case helmets — while others have one very specific task. The spotlight often shines brightest on the quarterbacks, running backs, and pass-rushing defensive ends.
Some jobs go unnoticed or are taken for granted, or as Matthew says of his role, “A lot of times it’s only noticed when something goes wrong.” Along with its stars, every football team has its unsung heroes: its long snappers, placekick holders, and punt coverage gunners. Here are some of the Gamecocks who play a vital but often overlooked role on Saturdays in the fall.
The Long Snapper
Even though he played tight end and defensive line in high school, it was around 10th grade when Matthew realized he wasn’t going to be playing any of those positions at a big-time college. He told his parents he wanted to try to make it as a long snapper.
“I was snapping all four years of high school,” he says. “Going into my senior year, I went to a lot of college specialist camps. I had a couple of offers from Power Five schools and a lot of offers from FBS schools. I felt at home at South Carolina.”
The Deland, Florida, high school graduate headed to Columbia as a non-scholarship walk-on. The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder got into one game in 2019 and became the regular long snapper in 2020.
Pete Lembo is the special teams coordinator at South Carolina. The Gamecocks are one of the few college teams that dedicate an assistant solely to coaching kicks and punts without an additional offensive or defensive responsibility. When it comes to long snapper, he says the most important ability might be reliability.
“Matt has been the most consistent and the most accurate, and we chart every single snap with every one of our guys every day,” Pete says. “Matt has been very steady, and we’ve had a really good operation with him — and that’s where it all starts on punt and on field goal.”
At practice, Pete might have Matthew and the Gamecocks’ other long snappers work on everything from snapping to tackling. Matthew says he also likes to review videotape of his snaps. Even alone, he hones his accuracy by laying on his back and snapping the ball into the air, trying to have it come back down perfectly straight.
In 100-plus years of football, the long snapper specialty is relatively new. For much of the sport’s history, the hunched-over person who shuttled the ball into action did all the snapping regardless of play or formation, whether it was to a quarterback squatting next to him, a punter several yards behind, or any of the holders, halfbacks, wingbacks, or wildcats in between.
George Burman is considered to be the first long snapping specialist. A journeyman offensive lineman with the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams in the 1960s, he was brought to Washington by coach George Allen in 1971 with the sole task of coming in on fourth down to snap the ball to the punter.
Other NFL teams slowly — very slowly, over more than two decades — began to make room for a specialist to snap for punts, and then extra points and field goals, until the long snapper’s job became as common as any other football specialty. Still, since they spend their careers hunkered down in the middle of the line and see action for fewer than a dozen plays per game, a long snapper seldom enters the spotlight unless they make a mistake and send the ball sailing or bouncing away from a vulnerable teammate.
“I think it’s definitely getting more popular, but a lot of times it’s overlooked,” Matthew says. “I’m always trying to get faster on my snap, but the main part of my snap is the accuracy. You can snap a fastball, but if you don’t know where it’s going, that’s a problem.”
Where it’s supposed to be going is to Kai Kroeger. In addition to serving as the team’s starting punter, the sophomore from Lake Forest, Illinois, is holder for all placekicks.
On extra points and field goals, the long snapper spirals the ball 7 to 8 yards back to a teammate who is down on one knee. That player, the holder, catches the ball and has a split second to position the pigskin for an already approaching kicker to launch it through the uprights. In college football, the entire operation will ideally take place in 1.3 seconds or less.
“For me and a lot of other guys, the most important thing is to get the spot correct,” Kai says. Before the snap, the kicker will identify exactly where they want the ball to be placed. “If you miss it, even by an inch, you can mess up their swing. Especially when it comes to kicking field goals, everybody looks at the kicker. If the holder misses the spot or doesn’t get the laces around, the kick can be off and everybody blames the kicker.”
Holders typically merit little attention unless they don’t hold. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo spent the early part of his career trying to live down a botched hold on a potential game-winning field goal attempt in the 2006 NFL playoffs.
Unlike the long snapper, the holder hasn’t become a specialized, you-have-one-job football position. The starting quarterback often assumed the task until coaches began to worry about the defense’s kick blockers flying through the air with the potential for injury. Now it can be a backup quarterback or someone else with trustworthy hands, such as a wide receiver, or in Kai’s case, a punter.
Kai also played quarterback and wide receiver in high school. His high school team liked to have quarterbacks serve as holders, and he performed the task as a freshman and sophomore. With the Gamecocks under former special teams coach Kyle Krantz, a punter typically served as holder for incumbent kicker Parker White.
“Coach Krantz had me in the rotation for holding,” Kai says. “When it was me holding and Parker kicking and Matthew snapping, it was the most efficient operation.”
No kicker wants to kick the laces on the football, so Kai spins the ball to turn the laces away from Parker. Likewise, punters typically want the ball to arrive with the laces facing up. Kai gets some help from Matthew, who knows how many revolutions the ball will make between snap and catch and thus can grip the ball to make it arrive with the preferred placement of the laces.
And sometimes, it’s just about survival. Like the 2020 game in Nashville, when the Gamecocks played Vanderbilt in a driving rainstorm. It was Kai’s third game as holder.
“That was the first time I had held during a game when it was raining,” Kai says. “I pretty much just focused on catching the football first, because if I don’t catch it, then really bad things can happen.”
Pete describes Kai as a “fantastic” holder. The first-year Gamecocks assistant has been impressed by him going back to spring practice.
“Our kickers have a great comfort level with him. I have a great comfort level with him,” Pete says. The field goal unit has exceeded Pete’s expectations in terms of maturity, focus, and understanding game situations. “That’s led by Kai, though. He’s got to be the quarterback of that unit, and he has taken that responsibility and handled it well.”
In punt formation, the gunners position themselves on the line of scrimmage, usually at the edge of each sideline. Their game is a delicate balance in controlled aggression. Once Matthew snaps the ball to Kai, these speedsters take off downfield, trying to get to the opposition’s punt returner as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, the return team positions cornerbacks to knock the gunner off course. If the gunner gets to his destination too late or too out of control, the returner might slip away. But if they get there too early, particularly while the returner is trying to execute a “fair catch” that is supposed to end the play without contact, the collision will cause a penalty and up to 15 free yards for the other team.
The gunner needs to watch for an additional scenario. The punt returner doesn’t have to catch the ball. They can let it bounce. If it goes in the end zone, the returner’s team gets the ball at the 20-yard line. But the gunners — and their teammates hurtling downfield behind them — have the opportunity to stop the ball from rolling into the end zone. If successful, the returner’s team takes over wherever the ball stopped. Downing the ball inside the 5-yard line is considered a major victory in football’s unending struggle for field position.
Timing between punter and gunner is important. The term “outkicking your coverage” refers to a punt that travels far but doesn’t hang in the air long enough for the gunners to hem in the returner. It should take about two seconds from snap to punt, and Kai estimates his punts need approximately one second of hang time for every 10 yards the ball travels to remain in sync with the gunners.
“A good team can put out a number of guys at those two spots, and that might be in the same game, or that might be week to week, based on how much guys are playing on offense and defense,” Pete says. “We all have to put the team and the program first and be willing to do some of the things that may not be exactly in your job description to help the team get better.”
Perhaps nobody fits that ethos better than ZaQuandre White. A senior from Cape Coral, Florida, he transferred to South Carolina in 2020 to play running back. Having begun his career at Florida State before transferring to junior college and becoming somewhat forgotten, ZaQuandre says he now focuses on the “grind” and simply being the best Gamecock he can be.
“It’s just a day-to-day thing with me,” he says. “Going through the day, making sure I do everything I need to do as a teammate, as a player, off the field, on the field.”
Roster attrition had ZaQuandre playing all over the field last season, including gunner. In the 2021 season opening win against Eastern Illinois, he teamed with defensive back Darius Rush to serve as gunner in addition to his running back duties. The Gamecocks named ZaQuandre their offensive player of the week, while Darius and Matthew were among the special teams players of the week.
“I love what that kid’s about, and I love how much passion he plays with,” says head coach Shane Beamer. He says ZaQuandre is “absolutely” an unsung hero. “He’s covering punts, he’s on the kickoff return team, he’s on the punt return team. He doesn’t want to come off the field. When some guys get tired, their body language changes. His body language never changes.”
Teammate MarShawn Lloyd agrees that the unsung label fits ZaQuandre. The two shared running back duties against EIU. ZaQuandre started and led the Gamecocks with 128 rushing yards and 39 receiving yards.
“ZaQuandre White can do everything,” MarShawn says. “That’s why he’s on offense, special teams, gunner, kickoff return. He’s just so versatile. With him being the player he is and the type of teammate he is, he’s going to do whatever he can do to help the team in whatever way possible.”