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Navy long snapper Michael Pifer
Navy long snapper Michael Pifer (Phil Hoffmann)

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has learned one important point when it comes to an aspect of special teams that often gets overlooked.

“It’s always been said: If you don’t hear about your long snapper, they’re doing a good job,” Niumatalolo said.

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Michael Pifer, in his second season as Navy’s starting long snapper, takes that a step further.

“Obviously, the goal of a long snapper is to be completely anonymous. I don’t want anyone to know my name,” Pifer said this week.

Anonymity will be more difficult to achieve now that Pifer has been named the No. 1 long snapper in college football. Earlier this week, Special Teams University selected Pifer as a first team All-American at the position.

“Michael impressed everyone this year with his clean snaps and ability to transition smoothly to a block. He was unanimously voted first team by the whole selection committee,” STU founder and director Kyle Stelter wrote in a Twitter post announcing the news.

Stelter put together a selection committee that features several long snappers that have played in the NFL, including current starters Luke Rhodes (Indianapolis Colts) and Austin Cutting (Minnesota Vikings). Numerous former college All-Americans are also members of the nine-person committee.

“Our committee felt Michael’s consistency was unmatched. He snaps one of the hardest balls you’ll see and performs every other aspect of the job at a high level,” said Stelter, who was a long snapper at Wisconsin River Falls.

Pifer was surprised and honored to be named first team All-American ahead of Rex Sunahara of West Virginia (second team), Ross Matiscik of Baylor (third team) and Drake Sutton of Eastern Michigan (honorable mention).

“I never thought I would get first team All-American because there are a lot of great long snappers out there,” Pifer said. “That being said, I always aim to be the best. If you’re any kind of competitor, you want to be the best.”

Pifer is the latest in a long line of outstanding long snappers at Navy, a run that began with current New England Patriots starter Joe Cardona. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick made Cardona a fifth-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

Cardona’s success helped open the door for Cutting, a 2019 Air Force Academy graduate who was a seventh-round pick by the Vikings. NFL scouts have attended Navy football practices to evaluate Pifer, who might be the next service academy long snapper to get a shot in the pros.

“I also worked with Austin Cutting and I would say he and Michael are very similar because they’re both so disciplined,” Stelter said. “I think Michael is the top snapper in this draft class, so he definitely has a shot. However, snapping is just one part of the equation. NFL scouts also consider size, speed, overall athleticism and blocking ability.”

At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, Pifer is the exact same size as both Cardona and Cutting are listed on their respective rosters. The Jeannette, Pennsylvania resident has gotten downfield well enough to record four tackles over the past two seasons and by all accounts is solid as a blocker.

“Obviously, every football player dreams of making the NFL. If given the opportunity, I would love to take it,” Pifer said. “All that is out of my control. I’m just focused on helping Navy win this season and getting prepared to serve my country.”

On Thursday, Pifer received surface warfare officer as a service assignment. That is the community he’d hoped to join since his future wife currently serves as a surface warfare officer stationed in Pearl Harbor.

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Pifer took up long snapping because it was a chance to get on the field as a sophomore at Penn Trafford High.

Starting long snapper Brian McDonough had suffered a broken hand and the varsity coaching staff needed someone to handle the position during preseason camp. McDonough, who would go on to play offensive line at Concord University in West Virginia, returned by the start of the regular season and regained the job.

However, Pifer developed so quickly and performed so impressively he wound up snapping for field goals as a sophomore.

“It turns out I had somewhat of a natural ability at doing it,” Pifer said.

Pifer took over as the full-time starter for all punts and placekicks as a junior and became dedicated to the specialty craft. He attended a regional camp conducted by Kohl’s Kicking and Punting at Thiel College in Pennsylvania and was invited to an underclassman showcase in Florida.

Kohl’s wound up ranking Pifer sixth nationally among long snappers in the 2015 recruiting class and that drew the interest of several Football Bowl Subdivision schools. Assistant Steve Johns, who served as Navy’s special teams coordinator from 2008 through 2015, is always scouring the country looking for punters, placekickers and long snappers.

Johns has succeeded in identifying and landing a slew of highly rated specialists, including such standout long snappers as Cardona and Josh Antol. Navy was the first FBS school to offer Pifer, who subsequently received preferred walk-on pitches from Penn State, Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

Cardona hosted Pifer during the latter’s official visit to the Naval Academy and did a superb job of selling the institution.

“Joe was a huge reason why I came here. He gave me a lot of insight about the Naval Academy that was very beneficial,” said Pifer, who was then tutored by Cardona at the Naval Academy Prep School.

“During Joe’s rookie year with New England he would come to NAPS once or twice a week to help out with the football team and worked a lot with me personally. I felt very fortunate to have an NFL snapper giving me pointers.”

Antol was the starter when Pifer was a plebe and the following season he lost a spirited preseason battle with Ronnie Querry. In two years as the starter, Pifer has not delivered a single bad snap for either punts or placekicks.

“There’s not much to say other than Michael is just outstanding. He makes all of our jobs a lot easier,” Navy holder J.R. Osborn said. “Long snapper is a job that a lot of people probably don’t consider that important. Within our special teams’ group, we don’t take for granted having a really good long snapper. We feel very fortunate to have Michael performing that role.”

Pifer aims for the back elbow of Osborn’s rear hand that is on the ground. However, any ball delivered between the chin of the face mask to the forearm is acceptable.

Navy’s field goal and extra point unit sets a goal of a 1.3 seconds from snap to kick. Pifer, Osborn and kicker Bijan Nichols routinely complete the process in 1.1 seconds.

“We’ve got a very fast operation going on,” Pifer said proudly.

Pifer also must snap the ball in such a manner as to make it easy for Osborn to place it on the ground with the laces facing toward the goal posts.

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“There’s a lot more that goes into it than people think. (Pifer’s) rotation of the ball matters. If the rotation is off, I have to spin it more and that slows down the whole operation,” Osborn said. “Michael probably gives me perfect snaps 90 percent of the time. When that happens, it makes my job easier and Bijan’s job easier. It all starts with the snap and Michael does a great job.”

Pifer’s goal when snapping for a punt is to get the ball into White’s hands within seven-tenths of a second. He aims for the right hip so White can catch the ball at the level that is ideal for beginning the punting process.

“Michael’s snaps are always great – right where I want them to be,” said White, who is averaging 44.3 yards per punt this season and was recently named a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award. “It sets up a chance to have a good punt when you get a great snap and Michael puts it right on my hip every time.”

Pifer, who is a candidate for Mannelly Award that is presented to the top long snapper in major college football, credits Stelter for helping him reach another level.

“Kyle has been more of an individualized coach and has meant the world to my long snapping abilities,” Pifer said. “I give Kyle a ton of credit because I wouldn’t be at the level I am without his instruction. He has taken me far and above anything I ever anticipated.”

Niumatalolo has not worried one bit about long snapping for going on a decade now thanks to Cardona, Antol, Querry and Pifer.

“We’ve had a steady string of really good long snappers starting with Joe Cardona,” Niumatalolo said. “Michael Pifer has continued that tradition. Just very consistent as far as doing a good job of snapping, good job of protecting and good job of covering. I’ve been really impressed with how hard Pifer has worked on his craft. I’m really happy to see Pifer receive this accolade because it’s well deserved.”

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