Former WKU 4-year starter vying for 1 of 32 spots
Nolan Dowling is trying one of the toughest routes there is to the NFL.
Thirty-two teams are in the league. Each of them will likely carry one long snapper on their roster during the season.
Therefore, long snappers have just 32 spots available if they want to have a pro football career.
Dowling started the last four years at the position for Western Kentucky. Now he’s hoping to claim one of those coveted pro spots.
“It’s not like tight ends, quarterbacks, where they’re three-deep at those positions,” Dowling said. “Long snappers, there’s 32 of them. They only bring two into camp.
“If I get invited to camp I’ll be fighting against a nine-year or 10-year vet like, ‘All right, let’s see what we can do.’ ”
Dowling spoke Monday after he and 17 other of last year’s Hilltopper seniors worked out at the team’s pro day. Thirty-three representatives from 26 NFL teams were on hand evaluating prospects.
Offensive lineman Forrest Lamp and wide receiver Taywan Taylor were the main draws for scouts. Unlike those two former WKU stars, Dowling is unlikely to be picked when the NFL Draft takes place April 27-29.
But the 6-foot, 230-pound long snapper hopes to get an NFL camp invite as an undrafted free agent. From there, he’ll fight to stay on a roster.
“It’s very unique,” Dowling said. “It’s a lot different than other positions.
“Forrest, for example, he’s getting phone calls off the hook. With long snappers it’s high school all over again. We’re the last ones to get recruited and we’re the last ones to get looked at. …
“Hopefully someone liked what they saw. That’s all I can ask for is that someone liked it and gives me a shot.”
Dowling came to WKU from Belleville (Ill.) East High School in the summer of 2012 as a walk-on. He redshirted that season before taking over the job in 2013 as a redshirt freshman.
Dowling didn’t give the job up from there, starting each of the next four years for the Hilltoppers. He played on teams that won at least eight games all four seasons and finished his career with three straight bowl wins and two straight Conference USA titles.
While stars like Lamp, Taylor and Brandon Doughty got most of the attention during Dowling’s career, he was just as steady at his job.
Dowling snapped his first three years for kicker Garrett Schwettman, the program’s all-time leading scorer in points scored (398) and made field goals (54).
The value of Dowling’s reliable snaps was “probably way more than people realize,” Schwettman said. It started with countless repetitions in practice.
“We repped it, repped it, repped it,” said Schwettman, now a kicking coach at NAIA Ave Maria University in southwest Florida. “We didn’t have to pull each other to get out there.
“We group messaged each other, ‘Hey, you want to go work out?’ And it would be ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s get this work in.’ Nolan is a workhorse. He’ll put in the work. He isn’t afraid of that.”
That sort of work by Dowling led to consistent snaps in games, former WKU special teams coordinator Tony Levine said.
By the time Levine started with the Hilltoppers in 2016, Dowling was already a three-year starter and had earned a scholarship.
“Any time we had to punt or kick an extra point or kick a field goal, there was not one person in our program that was concerned about the snap getting there,” said Levine, who’s now on staff at Purdue. “He was right on the mark every time, very durable, very reliable.
“Pressure, the stress of a certain situation in a game … nothing fazed him.”
Dowling earned Honorable Mention All-Conference USA honors three straight years from 2014-16.
Dowling said he came to WKU just hoping to earn a scholarship, which he did. It was later in his career when he said he realized long snapping was something he could pursue at the NFL level.
“Once it got to around my junior year, I thought, ‘Maybe I can go to the next level,’” Dowling said. “I started training harder. Finally after this season, I was like, ‘I might have a shot.’
“I got invited to the NFLPA Bowl and that really was the time I was like, ‘OK, maybe there’s an opportunity here for me.’ Like I said, it’s very difficult as a long snapper to get in, but you just need that opportunity.”
Levine coached two future NFL long snappers during his career at Houston, both of whom began their careers as college walk-ons like Dowling. He also worked two years as a special teams coach in the league with the Carolina Panthers.
“I think timing is important,” Levine said. “I think getting with the right team is important.
“As a rookie, very few long snappers are drafted and the ones that sign as free agents have to do a good job going to a team where they have a legitimate chance to beat out the returning starter.
“So there’s no question at all in my mind that he can do it and has the ability to do it. I think it can be timing and getting with the right organization.”
If Dowling gets that NFL shot, Schwettman said he’s confident his friend can take advantage of it.
The two were roommates their first two years at WKU and spent entire practices together along with other specialists.
Off the field they were just as close, Schwettman said, and are still good friends.
“Nolan might not have the fastest snap, might not have the speed running down the field, this, that or whatever,” Schwettman said. “Nolan is going to outwork him. He’s worked way too hard to get to this point.
“If he gets a shot, that’s all he needs. I think he’ll end up taking full advantage of that opportunity and sticking with whoever it is.”