Aussie imports changing U.S. punt game

Les Miles recalled a conversation with former LSU All-American Brad Wing’s father while trying to explain the skillset of an Australian punter.

Today Miles is clearly a convert, having signed two more punters since Wing who also hailed from Down Under, but he didn’t fully grasp the weapon he had on his hands until David Wing laid it out in golf terms.

An American-born punter carries just one club -- a driver -- in his bag, Wing told the Tigers’ head coach. As long as the American hits his driver effectively during his round, all is well. But because he spent his formative years running and kicking while playing Australian Rules Football, the Aussie has far more clubs at his disposal, he continued.

Yes, he can hammer the driver far down the field, but he can also hook a 5-wood up and over to the sideline. He can fly a 7-iron a moderate distance downfield. Or he could loft a pitching wedge high in the air, attempting to land it deep inside an opponent’s territory. He can execute all of those shots at a variety of heights, directions and distances, and he can typically do it with either foot.

“When you find a guy that’s got real expertise, there are kicks that they do that the normal punter doesn’t do,” Miles said.

In case you’re wondering why more Australian punters seem to be showing up on U.S. college football rosters, it’s truly that simple. Coaches like Miles are starting to realize that these players’ capabilities add pages to a special-teams playbook -- and the Aussies who are already here are generating impressive results.

The past two Ray Guy Award winners -- Memphis’ Tom Hornsey and Utah’s Tom Hackett -- are both Aussies. Wing (2011), Hornsey (2013) and Hackett (2014) won the Associated Press’ first-team All-America honors in three of the past four years. Last season, five of the top punters in the FBS hailed from Down Under, including Nos. 3 (Hackett at 46.7 yards per punt) and 9 (LSU’s Jamie Keehn at 44.9).

“I hope that coaches out here understand or at least try and contemplate what’s going on,” Hackett said. “There are a lot of stubborn coaches out here, so I’m hoping that they at least try and see what we can do and how maybe we can change the punt game for the better. And I think that’s a great possibility. But it just means that the kids who are over here now, including myself, need to perform.”

What they do can be unorthodox -- check out Hackett’s arsenal of running, across-the-field bullets and slippery squib shots on his highlight reel sometime -- but performance is typically not an issue once the players figure out the nuances of a sport that shares some similarities with the one they grew up playing, but is still largely different. On one hand, playing punter is not a physically demanding position, but there are still plenty of adjustments to make while switching from one sport to the other.

“The wear and tear on your body’s a lot higher in Australia, whereas when a guy comes over here and it’s pretty much easy for him because they’re hopefully not getting hit too much being a punter,” Keehn said. “Taking two steps and kicking a ball rather than having to run around a field and have 9 percent body fat and be able to run 20 miles in a weekend, that kind of stuff.

“Other than that, the transition getting from Australian Football to here is a little bit difficult. I thought it was going to be easy: Just go out and put the pads on. But it’s a whole new thing with a helmet on and all these pads that I’m not used to wearing, people coming for you at different angles and having to stay inside the [punt protection] shield rather than being able to move yourself.”

That’s where Nathan Chapman comes in.

A former Australian Rules Football player who had a cup of coffee punting with the Green Bay Packers, Chapman founded an academy -- ProKick Australia -- to assist other Aussies as they attempt to transform into American-style punters.

Initially Chapman’s goal was to help his countrymen find jobs in professional football. However, he soon realized that teaching punting skills to younger players would not only allow them to pursue educations at U.S. universities, but that there were more plentiful opportunities at colleges (compared to landing a job with one of 32 NFL teams) where the players would have additional time to develop their talents.

“Why not get the kids who really can kick to college, give them their four years of education, get their degree, and then they can progress up to the NFL if they’re good enough?” Chapman asked.

It’s a valid point, and the philosophy seems to be working well for his pupils. Chapman estimates that 45 to 50 punters have already advanced through his program to play at some level of college or professional football in North America.

We’re not talking about low-level programs here, either. Joining Hackett and Keehn among the active alums of Chapman’s ProKick Australia program are starting punters at Ole Miss (Will Gleeson) and Wake Forest (Alexander Kinal), as well as much of the Big Ten (Ohio State’s Cameron Johnston, Michigan’s Blake O’Neill, Penn State’s Daniel Pasquariello and Rutgers’ Tim Gleeson). And that’s just among the players at FBS-level programs.

Maybe that’s not enough to call it a full-blown Aussie takeover, but it’s a substantial improvement from the early days of Chapman’s program, when he posted prospects’ videos on YouTube and begged coaches to consider them for scholarships.

“It was really hard in the early days to get coaches to get on board, but now we get coaches who are deciding if they want to come out here, coaches who are ringing up saying, ‘Who have you got?’ So it’s sort of changed a bit, however a scholarship is still really hard to tie down,” Chapman said.

“But the coaches are certainly more aware, and coaches move around a lot, so they could be with a school and then they go to another one and they say, ‘We need a punter,’ and they put their hand up and say, ‘Well, I know a guy who’s been sending them across from Australia’ and they give the details.”

It obviously helps that the number of productive Australian punters is growing, and that an American observer once told Chapman that Hackett’s unusual punting methods made him “the first guy since Ray Guy to change the game of punting to such a degree.”

Perhaps the Aussie influence will someday permanently change the punt game in the same way that European, soccer-style place-kickers did in the NFL several decades back, when they pushed old-time, straight-ahead kickers into extinction.

Regardless of whether the recent influx of Aussie punters is just a temporary fad or only the start of something bigger, Miles has already seen enough to have made up his mind.

“I can tell you this: It is a trend here,” Miles said. “It’s a trend at LSU.”