Going to a Penn football practice, everything has a structure. Each player knows where he is supposed to be, when he is supposed to be there and which coach will be working with him.
Even the jerseys indicate the players’ place in the process: the offense dresses in white, the defense in blue, all while the quarterbacks wear red jerseys that represent that they are not to be hit during practice.
But amid all the order and structure that dictates the daily routine of the 100-plus Penn football players, there is one group that stands out from all the rest. One group that walks to its own beat.
And that is the ‘Gold Squad.’
Penn’s special teams unit, consisting of six specialists that focus on kicking, punting and long snapping, refer to themselves as the ‘Gold Squad’ thanks to the gold jerseys that make them distinct from the rest of the team.
But it isn’t just a different jersey or position that sets these players apart.
The six players — senior Connor Loftus, junior Jimmy Gammill, sophomore Aron Morgan and freshmen Hunter Kelley, Brock Elmore and Zach O’Leary — share a unique bond as a result of their time spent working together.
Unlike every other player in the program, Penn’s special teams players don’t have a coach.
Every other position group has a coach and place to be at every moment. Yet while this could lead to chaos and disorder for some groups, the specialists learn and grow with each other. They become best friends, coaches and mentors, all at the same time.
And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Following a different road
To an outsider or the casual football fan, the assumption is that each of the players was unathletic growing up and turned to punting or kicking when it became clear he wasn’t going pro at one of the top skill positions. And in the case of former Penn punter Scott Lopano, that is actually somewhat true.
“I all of a sudden realized I had a natural knack for [punting] and was not quite as good athletically at being a wide receiver,” he said. “So I started gravitating towards what I was really good at.”
But each of the current players followed a different road to his vocation and, eventually, to Penn.
Loftus, a veteran placekicker and the unofficial leader of the group, comes from an Ivy League football family. His father was a linebacker at Cornell and his uncle was an All-American wide receiver at Harvard before becoming an All-Pro punter in the NFL.
“When I was seven and my brother was nine, my dad bought a book about kicking and brought us out to the field one day and started kicking,” he said. “And we’ve been doing it ever since.”
While Loftus came from a family of special teamers, nothing quite compares to the highlight film that led to one of the current freshmen — O’Leary — joining the Red and Blue (or Gold).
O’Leary, a California native, had an injury that sidelined him for his entire final season of high school, where he played tight end, linebacker and long snapper.
Naturally, the 6-foot-1 athlete was scared that he wouldn’t be able to play college football. But long-snapping proved to be the saving grace for O’Leary.
While it may be surprising to know that something like it exists, O’Leary and his coaches strung together a long-snapping highlight reel, hoping it would catch the eye of a college coach. Watching his videos online, it is extremely difficult for the untrained eye to see the differences snap to snap.
But sure enough, head coach-in-waiting Ray Priore saw the video and was eager to bring O’Leary aboard as Penn’s next long-snapper.
“When he called me and said, ‘We like your snapping,’ I remember the excitement … that they wanted me for something,” O’ Leary said.
A deep bond
Flash back to practice as O’Leary shows off his long-snapping skills. Kelley and Elmore take his snaps and practice their punts while the kickers take a break. Loftus walks by beaming, “Another great day to be Gold.”
There is very little attention paid to the ‘Gold Squad’ outside of an occasional cameo from coach Al Bagnoli for practice kicks or their designated periods where they become the focus on the field.
With time to themselves, it is only natural that the group would form a bond that goes beyond football. At one practice, the players discuss their relationships. In another, they poke fun at O’Leary, the designated jokester of the group.
“A snapper’s got to be a goofy, fun guy,” Loftus said. “That’s the role of the snapper. You’ve gotta have fun because you do the same thing every time. Zach is quite a character and a great snapper.”
And while they are having fun, they are also each other’s biggest fans. Each one of them has had moments of both failure and triumph, like Loftus making the game-winning field goal to beat Brown in 2012. Through it all, they know what each other is going through in a way that other players and coaches may not.
“When you come off the sidelines from a bad punt or kick, the coach is going to be the first one that is going to be disappointed because, naturally, they’re trying to win games,” Lopano said. “But the person who will come to you from a place of empathy is the kicker who has missed a kick before and knows how much it sucks, and so it is really good to have those kinds of people on the sideline.”
Beyond the sideline, the group has become close friends off the field, with Lopano and Loftus’ friendship as a golden example.
“He’s one of my best friends, and we spent a few years together almost constantly because we roomed together on away trips,” Lopano said. “You are on the field together all the time, so it is a very close bond.”
While the friendship began on the field, it has expanded with Loftus seeing Lopano as not only a great friend but also a mentor — and someone who always has a spare couch.
“You start going to Shake Shack more, you start doing other things [with the Gold Squad],” Loftus said. “With Scott, I was really lucky [that] he always reached out to me and wanted to do things, and he’s become one of my best friends. I still hang out with him all the time. He’s up in New York and he always says the couch is open, so I crash on his couch.”
The real MVPs
While the group is willing to lend each other a couch, they also lend each other advice while going through daily practice.
“It is quite tough because when you know you’re doing something wrong, you can get down on yourself,” said junior Max Kurucar, who started at punter last season before becoming a staff member of The Daily Pennsylvanian.
“We’re always on each other to get better at our trade and always there to support and work through any slumps that we may have.”
Because the group is working mostly on its own, each player has to manage his own workload.
“It is [about] responsibility because we have a little bit more freedom than the rest of the team and we have a really important job,” Loftus said. “Just about everyone on the team has an important job, and we have to make sure that job gets finished.”
Whether Kelley and Elmore are helping each other go through their punts or Loftus, Gammill and Morgan are trading off kicks, each player remains active.
“You think about your steps,” Lopano said. “You break down every little component because it is naturally a very mental thing to be a kicker or punter, but you have to spend those three hours doing something.”
However, as each of the players points out, they can’t spend the entire practice on kicks, punts and snaps. So naturally, there are lulls in the process, an issue of which the coaching staff is fully aware.
“It is sort of like being a baseball pitcher: they have to be on a pitch count,” Priore said. “There are times in practice where we do work with them, but the problem is exactly that — they get bored and all they want to do is go out there and hit like a baseball pitcher wants to keep pitching.”
So the coaches have devised ways to get the players involved, even when they aren’t kicking the ball.
“The guys that aren’t playing, we try and make them feel a part of things, whether it is snapping a ball or being the running back in a scout drill or whatever it may be,” Priore said.
It may seem like grunt work to take snaps in offensive line drills or the other small duties the special teams unit takes on, but the group has embraced each part.
At a practice a few weeks ago, for example, Gammill, Morgan and O’Leary were momentarily idle, sitting on the bench. First, Morgan was called over to take snaps for some drills with the offensive and defensive line, his gold jersey preventing a serious hit from one of the D-linemen.
Just a few minutes later, Bagnoli called over Gammill to take snaps with the scout team offense. While getting up from the bench and gathering his helmet, he turned back at his fellow ‘Gold Squad’ members and joked simply, “I’m the real MVP,” before sprinting to the other side of the field.
Keeping themselves entertained
Without that sense of humor which each player brings to the field, it would be nearly impossible for the special teams unit to pass the time at practice. While each player takes his position seriously and spends more than adequate time working on it during each practice, the group also finds creative ways to keep itself entertained.
“My freshman year, I brought a riddle to practice every day because Scott Lopano and Connor [Loftus] are both very intellectual people, so they loved the riddles,” Gammill said.
While the tradition of bringing riddles has slowly died — the upperclassmen jokingly blame Morgan for his lack of interest — it is one of the silly routines that defines a Gold Squad practice. Even former players look back fondly on the routine despite some of the more challenging puzzles.
“We had many simple ones and really difficult ones that involved math and were difficult to the point that we were getting physically angry,” Kurucar said. “It gets really difficult, and I felt like I was in the middle of a midterm that I didn’t prepare enough for.”
The special teams players also take turns trying each other’s positions, attempting to rival Zach’s long-snapping or Hunter’s punting.
When asked who excelled at the other’s craft, the consensus was that Elmore was the best long-snapper besides O’Leary, even though that title “is not good for his ego.”
“I’m probably the worst of the other jobs,” O’Leary said. “I’ve tried to learn how to punt, and I’ve had probably three spirals in all of my hundreds of kicks. And on my field goals, I haven’t managed to get one over five yards yet in the air. I’m probably the least versatile Gold Squad member.”
However, the short kicks may have their place.
“I’m going to have to try something else,” he said. “Maybe squibs.”
Outside of imitating each other, the Gold Squad also has some competitive flair during practices, playing what they refer to as “The Game.”
“We created a new game on rainy days,” Kelley said. “We put the rainy ball bin out except for the last few periods of practice. We’ll all line up 30 yards away with our balls and try to throw them in.”
Competing for gold
While the Quakers’ season began in rainy Jacksonville in September, Kelley and his fellow special teams players have been focused on football season since August, going through a competitive preseason that featured multiple position battles within the group.
Loftus, the incumbent kicker, competed against Morgan and Gammill for the starting job while Kelley and Elmore tried to earn the punting spot. Ultimately, Gammill and Kelley took the starting spots while Loftus now exclusively handles kickoffs.
Gammill, who is referred to as ‘butter’ by Kurucar for his smooth kicking motion, thinks the reason that he got the position was his determination in the preseason.
“We all had a great preseason,” he said. “I’m sure we made it difficult on coach Bagnoli. But I came in here and I took charge almost. I really wanted to kick and I knew what I could do.”
Based on the Quakers’ special teams results this year, it is clear that the coaching staff made the right decisions on personnel.
In his first week on the job, Kelley won Ivy League Rookie of the Week. Loftus has proved adept at kickoffs and even delivered a vicious hit on kickoff coverage last weekend against Yale. O’Leary has provided crisp snaps and been one of Penn’s top players on punt coverage.
But Gammill might be the most impressive of them all this season. After missing his first kick of the game against Dartmouth on Oct. 4, the junior kicker caught fire, making eight straight field goals over the next three games. He broke Penn’s record for field goals in a game by going 5-for-5 against Fordham, earning both Ivy League and national accolades.
If you’re special and you know it
Gammill’s performance this year has been a prominent display of the Gold Squad’s importance. While he hasn’t gotten a chance to win a game with a kick, like Loftus did two years ago, Gammill and company have made a difference to help keep Penn in games.
“One thing [Bagnoli] has made everyone aware of is that those four to five plays those guys partake in a game win or lose more games than anything else,” Priore said. “They understand that they’re a special group.”
Part of being on the Gold Squad is being able to take the jokes of being a punter or kicker. But those within the squad also know that their abilities set them apart.
“Being Gold Squad is high-risk, high-reward,” O’Leary said. “If you’re good at it, you’re good, but at the same time, one bad snap, one bad punt, one bad kick could ruin the game.
“[The other players] want to be Gold Squad members, but I don’t know if they can handle the pressure of getting the job done.”
Every practice, after the entire team meets in the middle of the field, the special teams players meet up one last time and go over what happened that day. Once their brief discussion is over, there is time for one final tradition.
“It’s always the senior guys and you say, ‘If you’re special and you know it,’ and we give two claps,” Lopano said. “It’s the little things like that you remember that stay with you and you make lifelong friends that way.”
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