Navy football's Michael Pifer hopes to be snapped up by an NFL franchise
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: April 24, 2020
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Michael Pifer has been honing his craft while obeying the most basic restriction put in place to combat spread of the coronavirus.
Navy’s standout former long snapper is preparing for an opportunity in the National Football League back home in Irwin, Pennsylvania. He works daily with a neighbor named Anthony Youngo, a senior at Penn Trafford High who signed with the Robert Morris football program as a long snapper.
“We practice social distancing by working on our long snapping,” Pifer said. “We’re always at least eight yards apart.”
That is the distance a long snapper must deliver the ball for a typical placekick in the NFL. Snaps for punts must travel 14 or 15 yards. Pifer and Youngo have been working on both disciplines in order to stay sharp.
“I have a decent-sized yard and either Anthony or my brother can catch my snaps,” said Pifer, who earned rave reviews as Navy’s starting long snapper for two seasons.
Pifer is rated among the best long snappers available for this year’s NFL Draft, which got underway Thursday night in a virtual capacity due to the coronavirus. He is hoping to follow in the footsteps of a recent Naval Academy graduate by being selected in the mid-to-late rounds on Saturday.
Joe Cardona was taken by the New England Patriots in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft and has been the team’s long snapper ever since. At the time, Cardona was only the fourth long snapper ever taken in the NFL Draft and the first since the Patriots made Jake Ingram a sixth-round selection in 2009.
As a senior at Penn Trafford High, Pifer was hosted by Cardona during his official visit to the Naval Academy. Those two have remained in touch ever since.
As a rookie, Cardona played for the Patriots while stationed at the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, Rhode Island. The following year, Cardona and 2016 Naval Academy graduate Keenan Reynolds were permitted to pursue pro football full-time, converting their active duty service to a longer stint in the Naval reserve.
If drafted or signed as a free agent, Pifer will be able to play in the NFL immediately thanks to a policy change initiated by President Donald Trump. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper formally issued the new guidelines in November, signing an order that allowed service academy graduates to apply for a waiver delaying their military commitment in order to play pro sports.
Esper’s order requires athletes under contract to a professional franchise to gain approval from the defense secretary. Individuals approved for the policy would not be commissioned as officers until their playing careers concluded.
Athletes allowed to pursue pro sports must eventually fulfill their five-year military obligation or repay the government the cost of their college education.
“It’s been really cool to watch Joe Cardona play in the NFL. He kind of paved the way for me and others,” Pifer said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m really grateful to have a chance to play the sport I love at the professional level.”
Pifer was named the first team All-American long snapper by Special Teams University this past season. He was one of only two long snappers invited to the NFL Players Association Collegiate Bowl, which was held Jan. 18 at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles. West Virginia’s Rex Sunahara was the other.
“It was a great experience and very fun to go out to Los Angeles and be part of that atmosphere,” Pifer said. “I was able to show what I could do in front of NFL teams. I 100 percent think it helped my stock.”
Pifer delivered somewhere between 8-10 snaps for the American squad during the all-star game. Scouts attended practices during the week and conducted interviews with players at the hotel each night.
Pifer was one of only four long snappers in the country to attend an all-star event, which he says was “a big confidence booster.”
“Scouts could see what I could do live and in-person,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have gotten more eyes on me than a lot of other long snappers.”
Evan Brennan, an agent with US Sports, is representing Pifer and said approximately 10 teams have reached out. Brennan also represents Luke Rhodes of the Indianapolis Colts, currently the highest-paid long snapper in the NFL, and he expects Pifer to be in an NFL training camp.
“Most long snappers get signed after the draft," Brennan said. "We’ll see what happens with Michael, but I am confident he’ll wind up in a training camp somewhere.”
At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, Pifer possesses the size to compete in the NFL and his technique has been rated as outstanding. Kyle Stelter, found and director of Special Teams University, said the committee that selected Pifer as a first team All-American was impressed with his clean snaps and ability to transition smoothly into a blocker.
This past season, the Navy extra-point unit routinely completed the snap to kick process in 1.1 seconds.
“Honestly, I think Michael is one of the most refined long snappers available in this draft. He delivers a very crisp, clean ball,” said Stelter, who trained Pifer when the latter was in high school. “Michael gets the ball back there very fast on both punts and placekicks. One thing Michael excels at is getting those laces to come up perfectly every time.”
There are currently nine long snappers developed by Special Teams University on NFL rosters, including 2019 starters Rhodes, Austin Cutting (Air Force) of the Minnesota Vikings and Zach Triner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
One of the reasons Rhodes received a four-year contract worth $4.85 million is because he’s the best long snapper in terms of punt coverage. Rhodes, whose father played football at the Naval Academy, was a linebacker at William & Mary.
Pifer was credited with three tackles as a junior and one as a senior. He has been clocked at 4.91 seconds in the 40-yard dash, which ranks second behind Wertel among the top long snapper prospects for this NFL Draft.
“Michael may not be a stud athlete, but he is capable of getting downfield and making plays,” Stelter said. “I know Michael has been busting his butt to improve athletically, working hard to add muscle and gain speed.”
If Pifer does not make an NFL roster he will be commissioned as a surface warfare officer and assigned to the USS Chafee, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer based out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
“I’ve had a bunch of interviews with scouts from various NFL teams, so I feel I have a pretty good shot of getting picked up,” Pifer said. “As a long snapper, you can’t be picky. I like my chances. There are teams that are showing serious interest, for sure.”
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