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25 Questions (and Answers) with 49ers Long Snapper Kyle Nelson

Posted Sep 26, 2014

Getting to know the least-known player on the San Francisco 49ers, as his unique path to the NFL has been anything but "smooth."

Jim Harbaugh wasn’t 100 percent sure how to answer the reporter’s question.

Did Kyle Nelson’s versatility help him win the long-snapper job? 

“No, it did not,” Harbaugh said before stopping himself mid-sentence earlier this month. “It could’ve a little bit… I don’t think it did. I thought he just earned the job. He did the best job at that job, being the snapper. Could it have added to the excitement? ‘Hey, this guy’s got the ability to also play tight end.' It might have a little bit. It added to it, maybe. Put it that way. It added to it. But he won the job as the snapper. Am I making any sense?”

Knowing his quote could be used in a story, the San Francisco 49ers coach then told the reporter, “Smooth it out for me, please.”

But that word doesn’t work for Nelson and his NFL career. Since 2011, the specialist has played for seven teams. He has been released six times and waived three more times.

Most recently, Nelson, who turns 28 next week, spent the majority of the ’13 season in Washington, filling in for his injured best friend, Nick Sundberg. Again without a job in July, he was added to the 49ers 90-man roster for the third time in three years.

Beyond a smile and stick-to-itiveness, he's stayed in the league because of the athleticism that makes him a potential contributor on offense and more than just a snapper and blocker on special teams – he made his first career tackle in his 19th career game in Week 2 against the Chicago Bears. 

He’s a snapper that’s also like a third gunner,” Harbaugh said. “He’s got that kind of athletic ability. And you don’t find that often in snappers, because their number one job –  and the job that’s more important and matters, paramount – is snapping the ball firm and in the right spot. To be able to do both of those? That’s quite a thing.”

We thought so.

Nelson was gracious enough to answer 25 questions from his Levi’s® Stadium locker stall recently. Situated between two of the team’s longest-tenured players, punter Andy Lee and inside linebacker Patrick Willis, the team's least-known gave us his answers.

1. Your story starts in Canada, no?

Yeah, my grandfather played football professionally there for about 12, 13 years and made the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. And my dad is coaching the Ottawa Redblacks right now. When I started playing, he told me, “You’re going to learn how to snap because that will help you, the more you can do,” just like coach Harbaugh says. “More is more.” 

2. When did you start playing?

Well, we lived up there in Calgary, Toronto, so my first sport was actually ice hockey. We flew to the states in middle school. Then I started playing soccer, but my dad told me, “Hey, you’re not good enough to get a scholarship for soccer. You might want to just think about switching sports.” I thought I could maybe be a punter or a kicker, but I loved to run and catch. 

When I really, truly started playing football was my junior year of high school. I tried out a little bit as a freshman, sophomore. I literally, just went to practice just to sit there. I was so bad I didn’t even practice. That’s how awful I was.

3. How did you start to pick it up?

It was actually in high school when I got into trouble. I speared a guy in a basketball game and got kicked off the team and couldn't go to any basketball games for the rest of the year. I know I embarrassed the school, but I didn’t know any better then. Anyway, my head coach in football, Mark Bell at China Spring High School in Texas, was the only coach that came up to talk to me the next day at school. I thought he was going to rip me a new one; he ripped me all the time in football. But he just said, “Nelson, how come you couldn't hit like that in football season?” I laughed. 

4. You played all kinds of positions – and we saw you catch two touchdowns in Week 4 of the preseason – so at what point did you start specializing in snapping?

It was after college. I grayshirted at Baylor and redshirted at University of Tulsa. Basically, when I redshirted at Tulsa, I got to play every position. I played cornerback, fullback, wide receiver, tight end, everything. It was awesome. But then I transferred to New Mexico State. 

5. Why the switch in schools? You bounced around college the way you have in the NFL…

At Tulsa, I was given a chance to be the snapper. They wouldn't let me do both. A lot of schools don’t let guys do both, just for fear of injury if they don’t have a backup. At New Mexico State, we actually had a good backup, so they allowed me to do both. 

6. How did you improve enough at the spot to get your first NFL shot with the New Orleans Saints in 2011?

Well, the main reason I went to New Mexico State is because it was close to Phoenix. On summer vacation, when we had a week off, guys would go home or celebrate spring break, guys would go out. I would drive to Phoenix and stay with my snapping coach, Ben Bernard, and train with him for a week. He would train us in the weight room for an hour and a half, two hours. Then, right after that, we’d drive to a local high school. We’d snap for another hour, hour and a half. We did that four or five days a week.

7. And you worked with coach Gary Zauner, who every college snapper works with…

Yes, Zauner helped me out a lot. The video setup that he's got was really helpful. Having another set of eyes, another person notice something that you’ve never noticed before, he gave me things to tweak and work on.

8. Speaking of coaching, what's unique about working with Brad Seely here in Santa Clara?

With it being my third time (laughs)? No, it’s awesome. Seely is great. Every time I’ve left here, I’ve always left better than when I got here. My mindset is, “Okay, I just want to keep showing him I’m getting better.” I finally showed him those improvements in the job. Now, the hardest part is maintaining this job. 

9. How did you change Seely’s mind after being cut here in 2012 and '13?

I just went out and just tried to do everything they asked; I tried to do everything, and I tried to do a little bit more.

10. In an interview you did last year, you said no long snapper is the same. What did you mean by that?

One thing that is all the same, I think, is that if everybody knows who we are, it’s because we did a bad job. That’s why I don’t necessarily do a lot of interviews. People can know who everyone else is. We’re the one position where nobody should know who we are. Some of the snappers I think in the NFL that reach for that publicity, to start, they’re not here for the right reasons.

11. Understood. We wrote a story about the guy you replaced, Kevin McDermott, last season. We called the article, “McDermott Most Anonymous 49er – As He Likes It.” Sounds like you enjoy that same anonymity.

Yes, like if I’m walking at the mall and I see another player, I see people looking at that guy and I could still walk by and nobody notices. It’s awesome actually. I feel normal.

12. Got it. But on the field, how are you different from your peers?

Everybody has got different stance or different thought-process going into it, a different grip. Not everybody teaches the same grip. It might be somewhat the same, but it’s still different. I think probably my grip was a little different than theirs, just off the top of my head, just that. That’s the biggest thing.

13. What about the grip that you use is different? 

Well, my snapping coach, coach Bernard, would tell you that I have, shall we say, an unorthodox grip. The only reason he’s let me use the grip that I use is because I could throw a spiral when I first came to him. I just hold it how my dad told me how to throw it. He’d say, “Turn your wrist. OK, show the hand on top. OK, that’s how you do it.” But I tweaked it a lot since I first started. I’ve moved it around a little bit.

14. What do Seely, Lee and kicker Phil Dawson make of your grip?

They’ve actually helped me work on the short snaps, just getting that ball with the right alignment to throw a consistent ball. It makes it easier on Phil if every time, the ball is at 12 o’clock, laces out. That’s me lining up at the same every time and throwing it at the same speed and the same velocity every time I snap. Actually, the way I turn the ball on my short snap is different than when I turn on the long snaps. Long snaps, I cocked it more. On short snaps, I’m going shorter. I want to be so fine that I just sit in my stance and let it go without any movement.

15. Sounds like you’re expecting your every move to be picked apart…

Oh, yeah, I mean, I watch other snappers all the time. I look for their tells. I look for little things, a little something there. Maybe it’s a few moves to play a snapper that maybe their shoulder twitches or feet move or something I find. I’ll find something. 

16. Like playing poker?

Yes, exactly.

17. I would guess that one of the reasons that coach Seely likes you is your ability to run down field and potentially make a tackle…

It’s very important to me because I have a lane responsibility now. I have to get my part – I have to take away part of the field, or I have to head up on the returner, depending on what we’re doing that week.

18. Is it harder for snappers to get tackles because you have more work to do with the line of scrimmage, snapping and blocking?

Truthfully, we have to block some bigger guys. And generally, we’re not the most athletic players on the field. There are guys that will get down field like (New York Giants snapper Zak) DeOssie and (Oakland Raiders snapper Jon) Condo. They go down and make tackles. Some guys on some teams aren’t asked to do that so that. It’s a plus if you can.

19. Whatever the reason was for your break-through promotion, how'd you find out you made this 53-man team to start the season?

By not getting cut, by not having the angel of death find me (laughs).

20. It was by attending the team meeting where Harbaugh said, "If you're in this room, you've made the team"?

Yeah, I saw that Kevin wasn’t there. After, he told me he got released, told me congratulations. Kevin was a great guy. I hope he’s doing well. He deserves to snap in the NFL. I thought he was a great snapper and hope to see him on Sundays.

21. He replaced Brian Jennings, who snapped here for 13 seasons. How happy are you that you're here to stay after a third try?

I love it here. Don’t get me wrong. Every team I’ve been to, I’ve loved it. I haven’t been on a bad team. I’ve heard from other guys that some teams are hard to be on. I can honestly say that I’m very lucky. I'll say this too: I’d much rather be playing on this team than playing against this team. It was not fun to play against this team last year at Washington.

22. What was your memory of that Week 12 game in 2013?

Getting beat up by Demarcus Dobbs and Tony Jerod-Eddie. That was not fun. 

23. Seems like the 49ers more than other teams put guys who play a lot of snaps on offense and defense on their special teams units...

That’s why guys want to play for Seely. They want to play for Harbaugh, They want to play for the team. If they’re not the best one for that job, somebody else deserves to take his shot.

Personally, I want to play. I love to play. There’s nothing I’d rather do.

24. You couldn't imagine what you would be doing if you weren’t playing football?

I don’t want to. As soon as I start doing that, then that means this door is closing. I don’t want this door to close.

25. You do have a fall-back option in the CFL, right?

Yeah, my dad says he'd have a spot for me, but I’d much rather be here.