Photo credit: Steven Chang, BC Lions.
For Riley Pickett, the early practice routine is about as meticulous as it comes. While the other position groups partake in individual drills that involve a little more action and certainly some more hootin’ and hollerin’, Pickett is stationed several feet away at his imaginary line of scrimmage.
It’s there in his ‘office’ where he hunkers down and fires off a series of snaps to punter Stefan Flintoft all while special teams assistant Derek Oswalt stands in as the makeshift defensive rusher fully equipped with the standard long arm pads, “bullets” as Mike Benevides calls them, to make the routine a little more challenging.
Later in the practice period once Flintoft gets his own work in, Pickett will proceed to fire his snaps into the kicking net. One after another, with a nice spiral cannon always the end goal. The life of a long snapper. Unlike the other individual position drills in practice, it doesn’t look glamourous. Yet it remains a crucial element to team success on any given week.
Long snapping wasn’t in Pickett’s initial plans when the Lions drafted him as a defensive lineman in 2022. After splitting his rookie season between the active and practice squads, the opportunity came up somewhat unexpectedly.
“I hadn’t ever long snapped until January,” begins Pickett as the Lions continue preparation for Saskatchewan this Sunday.
“It was during my exit interview last year when Neil McEvoy told me there would be an opportunity to compete for the position. I gave him my word that I would work on it throughout the off-season. I was thinking then that I could maybe be the second or third guy while still being really focused on defensive line training.”
Back home in Saskatoon for another cold winter, he quickly found a reliable resource in Roughriders long snapper Jorgen Hus. The days for Pickett quickly became busy with long snapping sessions with Hus in the morning followed by classes at the University of Saskatchewan where he was finishing his accounting degree and the evening reserved for his regular gym work with a group that included Lion teammate Nathan Cherry.
“That was tough at first but I was doing it for a reason. It’s why I’m here today,” explained the former Canada West All-Star.
And once he realized it truly was a spot, he could see himself competing for come training camp, Pickett took long snapper training to a new level.
“I have a long hallway at my home in Saskatoon,” he said.
“I would position myself at one end with the ball and stack a bunch of couch cushions at the other to serve as my target. It turned out to be a pretty effective way to fill some spare time at home.”
However, it would not be a smooth transition once the camp grind commenced in May.
Pickett Overcomes Kamloops Obstacles
His direct competition for the long snapper position was 2022 Global Draft selection John Levi-Kruse and fullback Dylan St. Pierre. The early days of trying to perfect the craft in live practice action in the blistering heat didn’t always go as well as he’d hoped. But Pickett had to keep reminding himself that you can’t make the team in just the first couple of days.
“Coach Rick had a quick talk with me on the first day and told me I’d be given every opportunity to win the job,” recalled Pickett.
“Camp was a little bit rocky at first. I just kept learning and getting better. It was the first time I ever snapped in a team setting, you know with guards, tackles and pressure. The butterflies were pretty big there. After the first pre-season game, I kind of fell in love with it.”
“I miss playing defensive line and other special teams but I really take pride in being a specialist and slinging that rock back there.”
And he would emerge with the long snapper position at the end of the pre-season as Kruse was cut and St. Pierre remains on the practice roster after initially impressing the Lions at a Las Vegas free agent camp in April. Now with half a CFL season under his belt. the versatile specialist appreciates even more just how hard it is to excel.
“Even in junior college you always just kind of felt like the snaps are going get there, you know what I mean? This guy’s a snapper. It’s what he does. Easy money, right?” explained Pickett.
“It wasn’t until I actually started doing it that I was like, ‘Holy shit, this isn’t easy.’ Long snapping is really difficult because you’ve got to put it in the right place. It needs to be a tight ball and have good velocity because there are rushers coming. I definitely gained a whole new appreciation for this part of the game; it’s really opened my eyes to the bigger picture of a football team.”
Benevides has certainly taken notice of how well he has caught on.
“I couldn’t believe he’d never done it in live game action before,” said the Lions’ special teams coordinator.
“He’s grown leaps and bounds. It’s a very stressful position because people only notice you when you screw up. Considering he’s only played nine games as long snapper in his life, it’s incredible where he is at right now.”
He will strive to get better every day. That starts with the mundane individual period in practice.