Fletcher will become the second long snapper in Alabama history to be awarded a full scholarship out of high school. The first, Cole Mazza, who will graduate this year, was also the No. 1-rated snapper when Coach Nick Saban offered him an Alabama scholarship in 2012.
Put another way: Alabama’s focus on the littlest details of the game even stretches to the point that, in addition to craving the highest-rated recruits at quarterback, linebacker and running back, Saban has to have the best at a position that might be on the field for only seven or eight plays a game.
If that sounds a little Belichickian, that’s because it is. Saban, after all, worked under Bill Belichick, the famously fastidious N.F.L. coach, from 1991 to 1994, and just last year, Belichick stunned much of the N.F.L. when he selected a long snapper with the New England Patriots’ fifth-round draft pick. (It was just the fourth time that an N.F.L. team had drafted a long snapper, and the player, Joe Cardona, has appeared in every game for the Patriots since his arrival.)
The theory, championed by Belichick and embraced by his disciples (including Saban), is simple: Leave nothing, ever, to chance. And so in an era when strength coaches are sometimes paid as much as head coaches and college recruiting occasionally extends to children who have not yet started high school, it should probably not be a surprise that the old way of finding a long snapper — dig up a walk-on or teach a fourth-stringer how to do it — has been replaced.
“You’re basically buying a reliable car,” said Rubio, a former long snapper at U.C.L.A. who now puts on dozens of snapping camps and publishes on his website what is generally accepted as the most reliable rankings of snapping prospects. “It isn’t fast. It isn’t flashy. But it will always start.”
Always, of course, is the key point, and that is why evaluators like Rubio combine a snapper’s physical traits — “you generally want long arms and a big butt,” he said — with his mental durability.
“Ideally,” Fletcher said in a recent interview, “I’ll go to Tuscaloosa and no one will notice me for four years. If that happens, it means I’ve done my job.”
That has always been the goal for the snapping position, as the reality of the fourth-down role is stark: While occasionally a wayward snap turns out well, most of the time it ends up as a total disaster. Understandably then, long snappers are often overwhelmingly self-critical — “I get really upset if I even forget to use a turn signal one time,” Fletcher said — if not outright perfectionists.
That mentality usually dovetails nicely with the life perspective of most football coaches, though it was not until recently that the recruiting of long snappers became so prevalent. Rubio said a snapper from Southern California, Christian Yount, was the player who raised awareness of such recruiting when he accepted a scholarship from U.C.L.A. in 2005.
Specific numbers are difficult to quantify — not every college is looking to sign a snapper every year, and a handful of Division I programs still look to use walk-ons in the role — but dozens of teams, including Notre Dame and Michigan, have given scholarships to long snappers in recent seasons. Over the past decade, Rubio estimated, more than 250 players who came through his camps have earned scholarships.
When Alabama called Rubio looking for Mazza’s replacement, he did not hesitate to highlight Fletcher as the logical successor. The son of a former N.F.L. long snapper, Fletcher knows as well as anyone that the position involves more than the ability to snap a ball into a garbage can from the upper deck of the stadium. (Pulling off trick shots is a popular activity for some college snappers.)
Fletcher switched from tight end and linebacker to full-time snapper in the fall of 2014. (“I realized after a week that I could feel my legs and didn’t have a headache after practice, and it was great,” he said.) He credits Rubio with coaching him up to the level of consistency that earned Saban’s attention.
“It’s an A or an F kind of job, pass or fail,” said Ryan Longwell, the former N.F.L. kicker, who is now a special teams coach at IMG, “and Fletch is one of the best I’ve seen.”
Snapping the ball through one’s legs, over and over, to send it up to 15 yards in around 0.75 seconds is only part of the skill set. Alabama is one of a few colleges that run a so-called pro-style punt coverage, in which the snapper has to immediately move backward and block — as opposed to snap and sprint down the field toward the returner. That makes it even more critical for Saban that he identify a trained prospect.
To that end, Fletcher has been working to add a bit of size to his frame to help with the blocking, and he plans to enroll early in Tuscaloosa. He won’t be at Alabama’s semifinal game because he’ll be preparing for a high school all-star game, but if the Crimson Tide reach the national championship game on Jan. 9, he is hoping he will be in Tampa, Fla., to see his new team try to extend its dynasty.
For a kid whose primary job during a play is to simply avoid ruining it before it even gets started, the entire experience is fairly amazing.
“When I first started doing this, I had no idea these kinds of opportunities were even possible,” Fletcher said. He smiled. “But all I know now is that I’m really, really glad they are.”