By football’s standards, the sequence of plays that put John DePalma on the field last season in front of the largest crowd in Texas Longhorns history was swift. A three-yard rush, four-yard pass, nine-yard catch, 30-yard run and an eight-yard pass; in 2:07, the Mountaineers took the opening kickoff and scored. It was run-and-gun, spread-and-shred, exactly what had West Virginia ranked No. 8 and in the conversation of national title contenders.
DePalma, the Mountaineers’ freshman long snapper, stepped on to the field with the field-goal kicking unit.
At Pinecrest Academy, where DePalma played three years of football and four years of basketball, the Paladins crowd would reach 350, maybe, he said. Basketball crowds could turn the volume up only because of the claustrophobic confines of Pinecrest’s gymnasium. Football crowds might sound raucous only because of the isolated hill surrounded by trees upon which the stadium sat behind the school.
Darrell K. Royal-Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas, gets thunderous from sheer mass – a record-breaking 101, 851 people on Oct. 6, 2012, when DePalma and West Virginia won a thrilling 48-45 game. DePalma was busy. He snapped on six extra-points, three field goals and one punt.
"It was nerve-racking," DePalma said, "I’m not going to lie. It was pretty insane."
Through the first half of the season as West Virginia cruised to a 5-0 start and Mountaineers quarterback Geno Smith emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate, DePalma felt the nerves of being a true freshman snapping full-time on the Division I level. He was on a top-10 ranked team playing its first season in the Big 12 Conference. Stakes were high.
DePalma said it was soon after the Texas game when he finally began to feel comfortable with his circumstances.
"You just have to go back to that I’ve done this so many times. It’s just another snap for me," DePalma said. "I have to go out there and just do it like it’s practice. Act like no one else is there, it’s just me and the punter or kicker."
Just as DePalma was getting comfortable with his play, West Virginia’s imploded. The Mountaineers followed their win against Texas with five straight losses, including heart-breaking ones to TCU (39-38 in double overtime) and Oklahoma (50-49). West Virginia went from national title contender to 7-6 after losing to Syracuse in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
Few have West Virginia on the radar this season, not after its precipitous second-half fall last season or with eight starters to replace on offense. Smith passed for 4,250 yards and 42 touchdowns last season but is now battling for the starting quarterback spot with the New York Jets. Wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey – who combined for 228 catches, 2,911 yards and 37 touchdowns last season – are now with the St. Louis Rams. Neither Sports Illustrated nor ESPN have West Virginia ranked in pre-season projections.
DePalma said the Mountaineers are undeterred.
"We’re looking forward to surprising some people this season," DePalma said. "No one really has us ranked really high, so we’re going to have to take that as a chip on our shoulder and work harder.
"We have a lot of pieces here. [Smith, Austin and Bailey] were obviously a big part of our team, but we have a lot of new guys here and they’re ready to work. They’re ready to step up."
Despite all the question marks surrounding West Virginia’s season, DePalma isn’t one of them. A sophomore now, he’ll again handle all long-snapping duties. The 6-foot-6, 235-pounder said he’s worked this offseason to improve his strength and athleticism.
As he works out, DePalma thinks less about what he might do one day his with the business and finance degree he’s working toward and more about what it might be like to snap in the NFL one day.
"Of course, it’s definitely a dream," DePalma said. "I’m not going to say it’s the only plan I have, but I’m going to work for it, that’s for sure. I try to think about it all the time just to keep my motivation high."