Before every extra point, field goal or punt, someone is tasked with ensuring the ball actually reaches the kicker. And while it is the punter who can pin the opponent on their own goal line or the kicker who connects on a game-winning field goal in overtime, before the ball sails downfield, the long snapper is there to get the ball to his teammate.
For the North Dakota State Bison, this role is filled by James Fisher. Fisher, a native of Bloomington, Minnesota and graduate from Jefferson High School, is cognizant of the fact that no one remembers the man who gets the ball where it needs to be. Still, he takes solace in knowing that without a pinpoint snap, the field goal never can split the uprights.
“I think the importance of the position is really overlooked,” Fisher says. “People kind of assume that the snap is going to be there, and really the big thing to look for is the punt.”
Fans may still think that all long snapping comes down to is hurling the football through your legs and watching your kicker or punter do the rest. However, much more goes into the task.
“People don’t think about what it takes to get there and the fact that if you want to do it at a high level, the ball is coming back there pretty fast,” Fisher explains. “Doing lifts and exercises and making sure technique is right to actually send a ball with a good speed to be on point 15 yards back between your legs is actually more complicated than most people think.”
The role of the long snapper to any football team is indispensable and irreplaceable. Fisher is the only long snapper on NDSU’s roster, and if he were to miss time due to injury, a less competent replacement would have to fill in or learn the position in a hurry.
Despite their crucial role on special teams, the life of a long snapper is still anonymous, which makes it stand out to be recognized as one of the nation’s best, as Fisher is. The senior was twice named to the All-Missouri Valley second team, and this year he was selected to the first team. Additionally, he was chosen as a STATS FCS second team All-America in 2016 and before the season got underway, a first team All-American.
To Fisher, these honors hold a great deal of meaning. “It feels great,” he remarked. “Snapping doesn’t get too much of the attention. So when you can get attention as a long snapper — and it’s not for a messed up snap or something that you’ve done wrong — it’s a really big honor. It feels great to be noticed for something like that.”
Reaching the pinnacle of long snapping requires an endless amount of snaps, as Fisher explains. “Long snapping is a big repetition thing, so getting a lot of snaps in and critiquing the technique and making sure the spiral is tight with the football (are key),” he notes.
Above all, the art of the long snap boils down to consistency. “You can never be completely perfect at anything, so being more consistent is the biggest thing being a long snapper,” Fisher remarked.
In steadying the Bison’s special teams, Fisher has drawn the attention of NFL scouts. Head coach Chris Klieman alluded to Fisher’s draft prospects after the Herd defeated Illinois State, asserting, “James Fisher is a great long snapper, and he’s going to get an opportunity at the next level to snap.”
NDSU’s victory over the Redbirds was one of Fisher’s best performances of the season, snapping for eight punts and three extra points. While one extra point was blocked, four of Jackson Koonce’s punts were downed inside the 20-yard line and one went 52 yards.
Koonce’s 43 punts this season have gone an average of 39.9 yards and 14 have been within the 20-yard line. Kicker Cam Pedersen has made 9 of 13 field goals, two of which were blocked, and 60 of 63 extra points, making him the Bison’s highest scorer on the season. Fisher is not the only reason for NDSU’s special teams prowess, but his veteran presence in the center of it all should not be overlooked.
Fisher’s path to NDSU began when the Jefferson High quarterback and linebacker came to the realization that he needed something more to jump off the page. “I don’t think I was big or strong or fast enough to play quarterback or linebacker here,” Fisher said. “But the fact that I was able to figure out how to long snap kind of set me apart. Long snapping is not the most common thing that people practice, so getting that figured out and becoming one of the better ones kind of just stood out.”
Fisher sought the help of two local long snapping gurus: Josh Rosenthal and Kyle Stelter. Rosenthal was a fellow graduate of Jefferson High and long snapper for Concordia University in St. Paul who presently coaches for St. Thomas. Stelter founded a company called Special Teams University, and Fisher was one of his first Division I clients.
It was almost fate that Fisher found himself a signee for the Green and Gold. “It couldn’t have worked out any more perfectly. The former punt coach, A.J. Cooper, who played here, he was actually roommates while playing football at NDSU with one of my assistant coaches in high school.” After submitting two DVDs, one of game film and one of a gym workout, Scott Fuchs, then the offensive line coach, contacted Fisher and became a member of the Herd.
The Bison’s long snapper takes pride in his narrow role, relishing the opportunity to contribute to a team of North Dakota State’s caliber. “Being here is just a really humbling experience for everyone. I think you’d get a lot of the answers that people just care more about the wins,” Fisher commented. “I know my position doesn’t get the spotlight by any means, but just being a part of what this is and being able to say I have some help in most of the game situations, on fourth down and everything, is just awesome.”
Beyond the gridiron, Fisher is pursuing his Master of Business Administration and completed his bachelor’s degree in management. He is currently interning with Bobcat in West Fargo, taking advantage of the extra time he does not need to devote to position meetings.
The next time Koonce sticks an opponent deep in their own territory or Pedersen nails a long field goal, remember the man who started it all. Remember James Fisher.