Kevin Thompson and Brandon Dickerson are learning to become best friends.
That might have happened organically this fall in Cullowhee, N.C. anyway, but the pair need to speed up the process a bit.
Northwestern’s Thompson and Indian Land’s Dickerson are headed to Western Carolina to play football, both with preferred walk-on spots. Thompson will be a long snapper and Dickerson a punter. Establishing a close friendship will benefit their football performance the next four years.
“It’s everything because in our game, milliseconds are like an hour,” said Dickerson. “So we have to pretty much be able to read each other’s minds. We have to be best friends essentially.”
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Thompson got on Western Carolina’s recruiting radar during a camp hosted by the Catamounts last summer, but it wasn’t until late January that he landed a spot with the school’s football program.
By that time, the Catamounts special teams coach had stopped returning phone calls and texts. Turns out, he’d gotten a new job, in a completely different line of work.
But Thompson already had a deep affinity for the Cullowhee area; he loves the heavily forested mountains that surround the town, and his dad went to Western for two years and played football. Chuck Thompson was also a long snapper and Kevin was determined to make this happen. So he got in touch with Reuben Wright, who coaches tight ends and running backs at Western, and was an assistant for three years at Northwestern (2001-04). That greased the wheels and Thompson and Dickerson were both offered preferred walk-on spots just before Signing Day in early February.
And thus began the friendship. But not without a little research first. Thompson followed Dickerson on Instagram, so of course Dickerson dug into Thompson’s Instagram profile, reading his bio first.
“Western Carolina... what!?” Dickerson shouted, reenacting the scene. “Long snapper... what?!”
The two had never met, but that would soon change. Thompson and Dickerson will be college roommates, and they work out together at least once a week, usually twice, trying to spark the perfect snapper-punter chemistry that could pay off on a cool autumn Saturday in the near future.
During a recent workout with Dickerson, Thompson digs his cleats into the turf, making two guidelines in the dead brown grass. He bends over the football, moving slightly like a golfer in his pre-shot routine, then suddenly rockets the ball back to Dickerson, who thumps it 45 yards the other way with his left foot.
“Once you start thinking, everything falls apart fundamentally,” said Thompson. “Muscle memory, do everything at the same exact time.”
Thompson snaps the football to the hip of the punter’s kicking leg. Don’t make the punter reach across their body to catch the snap. That could lead to physical pain, and at least an earful from the punter and the special teams coach.
Thompson starts talking about spin rate and quarters of inches, and, frankly, it gets confusing very quickly. All that matters is the punter seems happy.
“Perfect snap for me is belly button-height, left hip, every time,” Dickerson said. “He’s really, really good about that. The faster he can get it to me, the better it is. We don’t have enough time to think about it on the field.”
Thompson is excited to follow his dad to Western Carolina. But things have changed greatly since Chuck Thompson was bending over and spiraling a football backward between his legs. Kevin went to long snapping camps even four years ago where three or four kids would show up. But now, there are national long snapping-specific camps, where hundreds of kids show up hoping to earn the rare scholarship, or at least a preferred walk-on offer.
Thompson has worked extensively on his craft, whether at camps, during one-on-one workouts with former college players, or solo sessions launching footballs into a net positioned behind him.
“It’s crazy how much it’s grown,” said Thompson. “People have realized you can possibly get a scholarship just by being a specialist, which has probably drawn people in that might be undersized or can’t run as fast or jump as high as other people.”
Punting and placekicking may have something to do with that boom. Charlotte-based kicking coach Dan Orner has helped multiple kickers from The Herald’s coverage area land full scholarships, including Skyler DeLong (punter, Alabama), B.T. Potter (kicker, Clemson) and Nic Sciba (kicker, Wake Forest) who all came out of the same 2018 class.
Most high schools don’t have knowledgeable kicking coaches, so much of that training has been outsourced to coaches like Orner. Where kickers historically have secluded themselves in a far corner of the practice field, kicking coaches have fostered community.
“With Dan, we’re all best friends. So it’s constant competition,” said Dickerson. “That friendly competition has made everyone better.”
Dickerson will see a fellow kicker friend from the area hit a 50-yard field goal during a workout posted on Instagram and try to top it with his own 55-yarder. Social media, and success, have continued to increase the visibility of special teams in York and Lancaster counties, at least during the fast few years.
That’s brought kids together that would have never met in years past. Like a punter and his new best friend.