Sept. 16, 2013
You will probably never see a long snapper or a kicker's name on the list of Heisman Trophy finalists. These specialized positions do not get as much playing time or recognition as a quarterback or linebacker. But Golden Gophers Jake Filkins and Chris Hawthorne know, as do their teammates, that their roles are still vital to the team's success. Both are part of a sequence - the snap, hold, then kick - that can determine who wins and loses a football game.
Neither Filkins nor Hawthorne has taken a direct path to his current position. Filkins learned to long snap not at a specialist camp or from a school coach, but from his father in the backyard. They marked a target distance using a birch tree 15 yards away from the fence. Like his dad, Filkins went on to play football at Prescott High School in Wisconsin.
But Filkins also wrestled, so he tried to balance both sports when he first arrived at the University of Minnesota. It proved to be a difficult task. Filkins had little down time, attending some morning wrestling workouts during football season and jumping straight into wrestling when football ended. When Jerry Kill became head coach at Minnesota, he asked Filkins to choose one sport. He gave up wrestling after completing his second season.
"By then, I'd already decided that I was going to have to pick one, just because of how intense it was," Filkins said. "I miss wrestling, but football's given me so many opportunities."
Hawthorne also had to give up a sport, but he did so earlier. The Raleigh, N.C., native played soccer for most of his life. He did not add football to the mix until his senior year of high school. His school's kicker had graduated, and Hawthorne agreed to try football when the offensive coordinator asked him. There were some differences in kicking styles, but he made the adjustments.
"The biggest difference in soccer and football is obviously the ball," he said. "You have to hit the ball a little bit different. The other difference is the fluidity of soccer versus the stop-and-go nature of football."
In his only season of high school football, Hawthorne made all eight of his field goal attempts and went 44-for-46 on extra points. He also handled the team's punting duties. Hawthorne walked on at N.C. State but transferred to Minnesota after his freshman season.
He found a place in the lineup immediately, handling all of the Gophers' placekicking for the first seven games of 2011. After Hawthorne suffered an injury, Jordan Wettstein took over kicking and continued to hold that spot in 2012, relegating Hawthorne to backup duty.
"At the time, it was unfortunate to get hurt," Hawthorne said. "In disguise, it was actually a tremendous blessing because it made me realize how privileged I was to play football and kind of made me reprioritize my life. Now I'm getting joy in playing, but I get a lot of joy in looking back at the process and seeing how much I've changed and developed as a person - emotionally, spiritually and physically."
With two talented freshmen in Ryan Santoso and Andrew Harte, the kicking job was surrounded by uncertainty at the start of camp this year. But Hawthorne re-emerged as the Gophers' No. 1 option. Special teams coach Jay Sawvel said that, where often a senior might take on an attitude that "it's my turn," Hawthorne was not offended by the competition.
"He's not going to be negative toward other people," Sawvel said. "He's got good character. So from that standpoint, he's going to help people do what they need to do, while doing his job. He stepped up, and he was the most consistent and had the best performances through camp."
"When you've got young guys in camp, I think the best thing you can do is try to help them," Hawthorne said. "I only want to compete against somebody when they're playing their best. Every time we go out there, you're never hoping for someone to do poorly. You want them to make every kick, so in turn it brings the best out of you."
Unlike Hawthorne, Filkins was basically locked in as a special teams starter before camp began. He snapped for most of Minnesota's punts as a freshman, and took care of all long snapping needs starting his sophomore year. Filkins, who estimated that he takes 50 to 70 snaps a day in practice, has executed all but two of the Gophers' long snaps in games since the first week of the 2011 season.
"We've been fortunate, over a period of time, that we haven't had issues with snaps," Sawvel said. "It's comforting that way. You've got somebody that's going to get the ball back there and do his job."
In a long snapper's world, doing the job well means going unnoticed. As Sawvel said, "It's the most forgotten position on the field because the only time you'd ever notice it's if he did something bad."
"For me it's a running joke whenever people say, `We'll look for you on TV,' and I always respond, `I hope you never see me,'" Filkins said. "I don't want anybody to know about me. I get a couple cameos randomly if I stand close enough to Coach Kill or during the national anthem or something like that."
Long snapping is one of the most specialized positions in football, with seemingly no variety. But it is more of an art than it may appear to be. Snapping for a punt is fairly simple in theory, as the main goal is just to get the ball to the punter at hip level. Snapping to a field goal holder requires more precision.
"You're supposed to be able to get to the holder with the laces already pointed away so he doesn't have to monkey with the ball at all," Filkins said.
Long snappers are in a vulnerable position, as they do not always have much time to prepare after the snap for the oncoming rush. So it seems fitting that Filkins, who quite literally risks his neck with every snap, plans to become a chiropractor and take care of patients' spines.
Hawthorne, who wants to become a college athletic director, has found numerous off-the-field outlets for his desire to have an impact. He is involved in the Big Ten's and Minnesota's Student-Athlete Advisory Committees and Minnesota's Academic Committee on Athletics. He is also one of the leading planners for an upcoming dance marathon, called Unlimited, to raise money for the Amplatz Children's Hospital.
"(Community involvement) is probably the most special thing I've encountered since I've been here," Hawthorne said. "(Assistant AD for student-athlete development) Peyton Owens and (assistant director of student-athlete affairs) Anissa Lightner have been tremendous mentors to me in realizing the importance of getting involved and giving back."
This type of unselfish attitude is apparent in the way Filkins and Hawthorne talk about the special teams unit. They say that they want what is best for the team, even if that means someone else takes their places. They identify with the entire special teams unit, not just when they are on the field.
In the season-opening win against UNLV, Minnesota scored touchdowns on a blocked field goal and a kick return. Neither play directly involved Filkins or Hawthorne, yet they felt deeply connected.
"I think when special teams is all you do, we take pride in it," Filkins said. "When Ra'Shede (Hageman) blocked that field goal, as a specialist you take pride in that because you're associated with that. When special teams scores, whether it's returning a punt or a kickoff or a block or something, it's important because the offense is on the bench. It takes a lot of the responsibility off of the offense. It just makes the game flow easier, and it's a big play. Any special teams play, even if it's as simple as making a 40-yard field goal, it sparks up the team. We can be just as much of a catalyst as an 80-yard passing play."
"Special teams is truly special," Hawthorne said. "It's the only unit on the field where you get the blend of offensive and defensive guys. You get wide receivers and DBs that ordinarily are fighting to the death against each other in practice that are partnering with each other on the same unit. Any time you get a big win like we had against UNLV where special teams are accounting for a lot of the points, a lot of the momentum swings, it makes the win that much more special."
Story by athletic communications assistant Justine Buerkle
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