Penn football is undefeated to start its season, notching a sixth win this past Saturday against Yale during homecoming weekend.
The whole team is clicking offensively and defensively, but one crucial component is the special teams unit. Kicker Graham Gotlieb, punter Ben Krimm, and long snapper Ryan Mannelly make up a special team trio that ranks first in the Ivy League in field goal percentage and net yards per punt. To reach those marks, the trio does quite a bit of work during practice in preparation for Saturdays.
“I’ll do drop drills and walk down the lines just to make sure everything is lined up when I do my drop and take my steps,” Krimm said. “I do a lot of spinning the ball and catching it, and also catching on the JUGS machine … getting a lot of hand-eye work, and the hand-eye coordination of catching the snap.”
“A lot of preparation goes without us being a whole unit,” coach David Sims said. “The specialists will come out early and stay late to work on the snaps. For [Krimm] and the guys that hold, they do a lot of work with the snappers to make sure the holds are on point.”
The hold aspect of the operation is quite intricate. It may seem a simple task for those who watch, but perfect execution is key to a successful field goal attempt.
“Hitting the spot ... probably has the biggest impact on direction [of the kick],” Krimm commented.
“I’m trusting that it’s gonna be in that exact spot, and there’s not that much time to adjust, so if it’s a couple inches to the left, that could change the kick a lot,” Gotlieb added.
Mannelly also has an important job in setting up either a good hold or a perfect punt. Individual drills during practice are important to building a steady rhythm.
“The key is consistency … I’ll aim at the goal post, and I'll line up 15 yards away [for punt snaps] and just try and hit [the post] as many times in a row I can," Mannelly said. "But most of the time, I’m either snapping to Krimm or to one of the other specialists."
Sims also mentioned that a consistent long snapper is extremely important. He went on to say, “We feel like we have one of the best.”
Gotlieb, who has the high-pressure position of making field goals, has had an impressive start to the season, making eight out of nine attempts from distance, with 17 out of 18 on extra points.
“First, I get my muscles loose. I’ll do some dynamic stretches … You can’t just go out there and kick as many balls as you can because then by Saturday, your leg is just dead,” Gotlieb said. “I’ll start off doing one-step [kicks] … I'm not swinging as hard. I kick a few off the sticks when [Krimm] can’t hold for me.”
Gotlieb has the opportunity to link with Krimm and Mannelly before practice, and once more with the rest of the team as one of the first items on the training itinerary.
“Beginning of practice we usually have a field goal period, so that's when I’ll get around five to eight more kicks with the full team," Gotlieb said.
Sims says that an ideal full rep from snap to kick should only take a rapid 1.34 to 1.35 seconds.
“Regardless of how you set up your protection, you have two people in the back, [and] you have 11 people trying to block it [on defense]. By the numbers you’re gonna be short," Sims said. "If we can get the ball off in that time, we don’t think the ball is gonna get blocked.”
“You don’t really have time to think about it,” Krimm commented. “As soon as it snaps, it’s like everything goes so quick. You just got to be confident in yourself and know that you’ve practiced it so many times that [you] will get it done … I think having that good crew of people — good camaraderie with everyone [and] great friendships — that makes the pressure a little lighter.”
Many football fans know that kickers have one of the most decisive jobs in football. They are only out on the field for a set number of plays, and can mark the difference between a win and a loss.
“I want to be out there at the end of the game having the chance to win it for my team,” Gotlieb said. “You need confidence, so if you go into the game thinking that you’re not gonna do well, you’re not gonna do well.”
Sims added, “You try to make practice as much of a game as possible. Those guys put a lot of pressure on themselves … to try to be as close to perfect as possible.”
As far as their undefeated season goes, Mannelly, Krimm, and Gotlieb are careful about jumping ahead and thinking about what could be in terms of championship aspirations.
“I think it's definitely in our minds, but our coaches do a good job telling us that we’re 0-0 each week, so we try to not worry about what our schedule is right now — we just want to get the win for the week,” Mannelly said.