Snap, hold, apply foot to ball, rack up points. Repeat 50 times.
That was the formula for the finest campaign enjoyed by any kicker in the history of the Canadian Football League last season.
It looked so automatic for Maple Ridge’s Paul McCallum that most of us assumed it was. Only three times in 53 field-goal tries did the Lions’ kicker produce the unthinkable - a palpable miss - and on two of those occasions it was because he was asked to do the near-impossible. He was so cognizant of the mechanics in kicking a three-pointer that when he did have a legitimate shank, the old pro knew exactly the reason the moment it left his toe.
Was being successful 94.3 per cent of the time as simple as it looked? Of course not.
McCallum, long snapper Dan McCullough and holder Jarious Jackson had choreographed their routine over a number of seasons and could almost pull it off in their sleep.
But when the Lions take the field for their season opener Friday night at BC Place Stadium against the Blue Bombers, two-thirds of that sterling battery will be missing. McCullough retired in the off-season, and Jackson now is in Toronto, having been released by the Lions and signed by the Argos.
The new long snapper is Tim Cronk, who was McCullough’s understudy at Bishop’s University but a player who will be getting his baptism under fire in a meaningful game Friday. Holder Mike Reilly, the Lions backup QB, was also a kicker at Central Washington and knows that a large part of a kicker’s success is based on the consistency of the hold. The ball must be placed in the same spot, at the same time, on every snap, in the vertical position, with the laces aimed toward the goal-post, as McCallum prefers.
The time frame - snap, to hold to kick - must be accomplished in an implausibly small window, from 1.28 to 1.32 seconds. Otherwise, you tempt fate with edge pressure (defenders) coming through the line.
Reilly, in fact, is much more familiar with Hugh O’Neill, the Lions’ backup kicker, than he is with McCallum, the CFL’s most outstanding special teams player last season when he established a league record with 30 consecutive field goals. Reilly held for O’Neill through-out practice all last season and they’ve become so close that they’re rooming together this year.
“Mike and I built a good relationship last year, with him being the emergency kicker as well [O’Neill did not dress for games, unlike Reilly],” O’Neill said. “I’ve lent him to Paul this year.”
Reilly, a natural clown who considers it his duty to keep the team loose, is not the most serious-minded of individuals, but he is serious about what he does. He could be the Lions’ most valuable benchwarmer. He knows that the better the hold, the better the kick.
“Hugh and I were a package deal last year, but I’ve been loaned out this year, kind of like they do in soccer, with their premier players,” Reilly quipped. “Jarious was Paul’s holder last year. I had very limited action with him. For the most part, this is all new to us. And the situation has changed dramatically for Paul.”
Reilly said he’d like the transition to be seamless but realizes there’s a good chance it won’t be.
“It’s tough to make it seam-less,” he said, “because I’m still learning how Paul likes the ball to be held, and he’s still learning my timing, how I catch the ball and put it down. We’ve also gone through some different centres and long snappers [in training camp] so things change each time. And it will take some time. Fortunately, Paul is a veteran and he’s able to adapt on the fly.”
After McCullough tendered his resignation papers, the Lions signed free-agent Sean Ortiz, who had some previous long snapping experience in the CFL. But head coach Mike Benevides liked Cronk’s versatility better - he’s a special teamer and backup fullback - and Ortiz was released in training camp.
While Cronk admits he’s not exactly the Picasso of long snappers, he’s probably better than the alternative. His backup, starting linebacker Adam Bighill, hasn’t whistled a ball between the legs of his spandex tights since high school. “I followed him [McCullough] at Bishop’s, now I’m following him here,” Cronk explained.
“I’ve snapped for a long time, just not much at the professional level, so there’s a little pressure there. Sean [Ortiz] probably had more game experience.”
“I’ve had a comfort zone with the other guys [McCullough and Jackson] for many years,” McCallum admitted.
“It’s going to be a bit of an adjustment this year. I just have to be patient, and work with them.
“It’s no different than a quarterback with his receivers. You have to develop a rapport. It’s a work in progress. Hopefully, it works out.”
Did you yawn whenever McCallum came out to split the uprights last season?
You might need to hold your breath a little this year.
Mike Beamish is a reporter for the Vancouver Sun.