Notre Dame's Sam Mustipher aware of snap judgment

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Sam Mustipher had never snapped a football until the spring following his freshman season at Notre Dame.

He didn’t start at the center position until last season. Now, as a senior, Mustipher is the only scholarship player on the Irish roster with center experience.

This offseason Mustipher transitioned from mentee to mentor, with junior Trevor Ruhland — a former guard — becoming his pupil. Ruhland switched positions after Tristen Hoge and Parker Boudreaux left the program in June.

“He took ownership that he had to come in and fill the role that he had never done before,” Mustipher said of Ruhland. “I'm so proud of him and how much he's progressed as a player on and off the field. His whole attitude and mentality toward the game has changed.”

But how exactly do you teach someone to snap a football? Few jobs on the football field are as equally mundane and critical to a team’s success. Snaps are only noticed when they fail, a lesson Mustipher certainly learned last season.

In practice, the task of snapping starts with a lot of trial and error. Shotgun snaps require the most work and are used most frequently in Notre Dame’s offense.

“First you have to get your stance down, and then you have to learn what fits you best,” Mustipher said. “Different guys snap the ball different ways.”

The 6-foot-3, 305-pound Mustipher uses the laces to allow the ball to spin more like a normal throw. Some centers perform a dead snap, which includes shoveling the ball backwards by the point of the football and letting it float back to the quarterback. Mustipher, who learned from former Irish center Nick Martin, tried to impart his wisdom to Ruhland.

“Really you kind of learn on the fly. Then you tweak it,” Mustipher said. “I can tell him, 'OK, lift the ball just a little bit more. Put your butt down.' "

A center also needs someone to watch, and catch, the snaps to monitor the progress. It’s a pretty lengthy process all to learn how to simply start the play.

But there are plenty of other responsibilities before snapping the ball. In offensive coordinator Chip Long’s uptempo system, Mustipher has to hurry to the line of scrimmage and make sure everyone else gets set around him. Identifying the defense and how the offensive line will try to block against the formation is the next step. Then he can get to the act of snapping.

“Getting my hand on the football as fast as possible,” Mustipher said of the change in Long’s offense that has impacted him the most. “Just go from there. That's what the offseason training definitely helped us with — conditioning and staying in shape and being ready to attack at all times."

Mustipher had a busy summer in South Bend. He stayed on campus to lift in the morning, served as an intern with the Bowman Creek Educational Ecosystem for several hours, then returned to campus for team conditioning. Mustipher, a computer science major, worked with electrical engineers on software to monitor water levels of rain gardens.

He’s also been studying plenty of football. Mustipher wanted to improve on his ability to identify defenses and how to better prepare himself for situations that will arise on Saturdays.

“You have to be a student of the game,” Mustipher said. “That's something (offensive line) coach (Harry Hiestand) preaches to us all the time. When you study, you see things. You see tendencies. You just have to be confident. As long as everybody's on the same page, most of the time it's going to work out.”

With Quenton Nelson, a third-year starter, returning on his left and senior Alex Bars sliding down from right tackle to right guard, Mustipher has confidence in the veteran players surrounding him.

"You're only as good as the guys to your right and left,” Mustipher said. “That's true for any position that you play on the field, but especially on the offensive line.”

But a center stands out when snaps fail. In the hurricane-soaked 10-3 loss to N.C. State last October, a couple of Mustipher’s snaps went awry. And in Brian Kelly’s postgame press conference, the head coach said, “Obviously, the lack of our ability to manage the snapping of the football was atrocious.”

Yet Mustipher never lost his starting spot. He worked to correct his issues as the team continued to struggle to a 4-8 record. Only a handful of botched snaps scarred his season.

"I never doubted myself much. It was just coming back each week ready to go,” Mustipher said. “You just have to have mental toughness. You have to have short-term memory. Let it go and move on to the task at hand.

“It's harder when you’re losing. Anybody who tells you it was all right losing ... no. Losing sucks. It's terrible. It was something that we had to get over and come back and put our nose to the grindstone each week.”

By multiple key measurements, last season was the worst for Notre Dame’s offensive line since Hiestand joined the team in 2012. The Irish notched their lowest national rankings in rushing offense (80th) and sacks allowed (85th) of Hiestand’s Irish tenure.

Those numbers, 163.3 rushing yards per game and 28 sacks allowed, are greatly impacted by failures in predictable run and pass scenarios. Mustipher and the offensive line understand that. It’s an emphasized area of improvement.

“That's definitely what you guys are going to judge us on, the obvious-run and obvious-pass situations,” Mustipher said. “When the guy 80 yards up in the stands — he knows we're throwing the ball or he knows we're running the ball, that's what we're going to be judged on. That's what we have to execute the most."

But only after the snap reaches the quarterback.

tjames@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame center Sam Mustipher spent the summer adjusting his snapping technique to ND's faster-tempo offense. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)