MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — With the vast majority of its starters primed to return next season, the loss of graduating seniors won’t have the same devastating impact on West Virginia in 2020 that it did this season. But there are a handful of positions where entrenched starters will prove difficult to replace.
Offensive tackles Colton McKivitz and Kelby Wickline have taken nearly every snap this season, and spring football will be a crash course in finding their replacements. Starting cornerbacks Keith Washington and Hakeem Bailey have occasionally been spelled by freshmen Nicktroy Fortune and Tae Mayo, but there figure to be growing pains for those players when they elevate their roles next season.
Save McKivitz, who is an obvious NFL draft pick, the toughest individual player for the Mountaineers to replace may well be the guy many fans think about the least: the long snapper.
There might even be some fans who don’t know Rex Sunahara by name, and certainly not by his face. Many of his West Virginia classmates are in that category. In an amusing recent video produced by WVU athletics, Sunahara wanders campus with a microphone asking fellow students if they know which sport he plays. Most of them do not.
Rex Sunahara (@RexSunahara) scours the downtown campus, while detailing his interesting path to West Virginia and becoming a long snapper. Take it away, Rex!
— West Virginia Football (@WVUfootball) November 14, 2019
However, Sunahara has earned the attention of those who understand his craft. Last week he was named a semifinalist for the Pat Mannelly Long Snapper of the Year Award. Mannelly, the award’s namesake, played at Duke before his 16-year career with the Chicago Bears.
“He’s one of our top pro prospects,” West Virginia coach Neal Brown said of Sunahara. “He’s been a weapon. We’ve used him in a different role than most long snappers – he’s been part of our coverage team. He will be missed. You want guys to play at a high level, and he’s done that consistently.”
Sunahara is tied with linebacker Josh Chandler for the team lead with two solo and two assisted special teams tackles. That’s an unusual feat for the position, but Brown felt the Mountaineers could take advantage of Sunahara’s athleticism this year. Sunahara originally attended Rhode Island to play both football and basketball before walking on at WVU, where his dad Reed is the volleyball coach.
“I wanted to show the team I could do what they’re doing too,” Sunahara said. “Specialists are kept in the dark a lot. We don’t get our names called a lot.”
You might not think a long snapper would have many opportunities to hone his punt coverage skills in practice, but not at West Virginia.
“We probably do 30-40 full-cover punts each week,” Sunahara said. “We put a huge emphasis on special teams here, and I think it’s showed this year. All these coaches are really into it.”
In addition to showing off his coverage skills, Sunahara has devoted this season to perfecting the science of the snap. It’s not as easy as it looks.
“There is a definite science to it,” Sunahara said. “There’s a swinging motion of the ball when you snap it. There’s getting your core engaged to get a more advantageous angle. There’s a lot of moving parts to it. If you’re just going to bend over to snap a football, you’re not going to be able to do it.”
For Sunahara, the next challenge after he wraps up his WVU career in Friday’s season finale at TCU will be actually getting a crack at the next level.
Long snapper offers perhaps the best job security in the NFL. There are only 32 jobs available, and the good ones can remain filled by the same player for a decade. Realistically, only two or three opportunities might arise for a rookie long snapper to break in each season.
“It’s just another challenge,” Sunahara said. “When I came here people were like ‘Isn’t West Virginia, the Big 12 a little out of your league?’”
For the Mountaineers, the challenge is finding the next Sunahara. Luckily they don’t need to hit the recruiting trail to find it. Redshirt freshman J.P. Hadley and junior Kyle Poland will vie for the starting job next season.
“You guys are going to be in great hands,” Sunahara said. “Nick Meadows did a great job leading it in for me, and I hope I’m doing just as good to lead it on for Kyle and J.P. It’s going to be a really good competition. Those two are going to go at it.”
“We have some guys that are more than capable of filling that role,” Brown said. “Will they fill it as well as Rex? To be determined.”