J.J. Helton punched his ticket to Division I college football during his junior year of high school – by accident.
The Franklin High coaching staff was looking for someone to fill in for the team’s injured long snapper, so Helton decided to give it a shot.
“I just went over, bent over and threw the ball through my legs,” Helton said. “I turned out to be pretty decent, I guess.”
College coaches at Tennessee and Kentucky thought so.
Though Helton played tight end, defensive end and backup quarterback at Franklin and was named all-region on defense as a senior, he understood college coaches were looking at one set of skills in particular.
“I knew if I wanted to play” college football, Helton said, “my best shot was to be a long snapper.”
So Helton jumped on board with the position and it has paid off.
He will be playing in his third bowl game this weekend when he snaps punts and field goals for Kentucky, which will be trying to win its fourth straight bowl game. The Wildcats will play Clemson at 7:30 p.m. Sunday in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl at LP Field.
It will be the third time in four years that Kentucky has played in the Music City Bowl and the trip back home doesn’t get old for Helton.
“It should be fun. Franklin was probably my favorite place I ever lived,” said Helton, who was born in Atlanta and lived in Collierville, Tenn. before moving to Franklin his junior year of high school. “Best people you’ll ever meet in Franklin, Tenn. I love it.”
Helton’s time in Lexington, Ky. hasn’t been bad either.
He joined the Wildcats three years ago as a preferred walk-on – a walk-on who is guaranteed a roster spot. He redshirted his freshman season and the following year he saw action in seven games as the team’s long snapper on punts. Last fall, during his first season on a full scholarship, he was the Wildcats’ starting long snapper all 13 games.
This season, as a 6-foot-3, 226-pound junior, he has taken on even more responsibility, handling the snaps on field goals as well punts.
“He has certainly done a yeoman’s job in that regard,” Kentucky head coach Rich Brooks said of Helton’s workload. “He has done extremely well. I’ll probably jinx him here but he hasn’t had those over-the-head snaps or anything like that. He has always snapped the ball consistently and done a good job in coverage and blocking as well.”
Helton, however, didn’t became an overnight success.
It took some time to hone his skills for a position he says is “not as easy as it sounds.”
His freshman year at Kentucky, he believed that practice made perfect, snapping up to a hundred balls a day. He soon realized that might not be the best way to get better.
“I would just get tired and I’d get worse and worse and worse. I didn’t really understand what was going on,” Helton said. “You kind of have to control your snap count.”
He toned down the snaps and approached it like he would in a game – snapping, backing up and then preparing to block. Having a graduate assistant that rushes the punts full-speed in practice makes a difference, too.
“That’s the stuff that makes you better,” said Helton, whose father, Joe, played defensive end and linebacker at NAIA Lenoir-Rhyne.
It is a job, though, that has a tiny margin of error. For example, on field goal or PAT attempts, Helton must snap the ball eight yards to the holder in 1.4 seconds or less.
Not to mention that there are 300-pound defenders on both sides, ready to pounce.
“You are a vulnerable guy when you are snapping it, particularly on PATs and field goals,” Brooks said. “They can’t line right up on your hip but they can line up on each shoulder and roll you up. It can be intimidating for a lot of people but J.J.’s handled that part of it very well.”
Helton, though, hasn’t been totally immune to the bad snap.
Two years ago against Tennessee, his snap landed a foot short of his punter. But, luckily for Helton and the Wildcats, the play didn’t end badly.
“He actually picked it up and ran for a first down right up the gut,” Helton said laughing. “So that actually worked out.”
The same can be said about his college football career.
“I’ve loved my experience at Kentucky,” Helton said. “I feel like my career has gone very well and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.”