Australian Punters Are Putting a New Spin on Football

On a cloudy, gusty morning last month, three dozen students, teachers, construction workers, electricians and bartenders wore helmets and shoulder pads and boomed torpedoes, banana kicks and drop punts.

Down the hill from a strip mall outside Melbourne, on a borrowed soccer field, they trained to become the next generation of Australian punters who greatly influence special teams play at the highest levels of American college football and, to a lesser extent, the N.F.L.

This season, 61 of the 133 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the top tier of N.C.A.A. football, have Aussie punters on their rosters, according to Prokick Australia, a Melbourne-based academy that converts Australian rules football players and some rugby players into punters (and a smaller number of kickers) for the American game.

The N.C.A.A. does not keep a single database on the birthplace of punters. But Australians have made a pronounced impact with the distance and placement of their punts, which can produce tricky curves and crafty bounces and rolls. Seven times in the past 10 seasons, Australians have won the Ray Guy Award, given to the nation’s most outstanding collegiate punter.

Many Aussie punters learn to kick by playing Australian rules football, where kicking is the primary method of advancing the ball. Credit…Asanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

Both punters in last season’s national championship game between the University of Georgia and Texas Christian University were Aussies. This season, 12 of the 14 teams in the Southeastern Conference, the most formidable college football league, carry Australian punters, according to the league office. Of the 14 teams in the Big Ten Conference, eight list Australian punters on their rosters, and a ninth lists a punter from New Zealand.

“Everyone wants an Australian punter,” said Jordy Sandy, T.C.U.’s punter. “Sometimes punters can be a bit of an afterthought, but they can really have a massive impact on the game now. I think a lot of that can be attributed to the Australian influence.”

Most Aussie punters began by playing Australian rules football, the fast, brawny sport where kicking is a primary method of advancing the ball. Players learn from a young age to boot the ball accurately to teammates while on the run and under pressure that can come from any direction.

While Americans tend to grow up throwing footballs and baseballs, many Australians grow up “kicking an oval-shaped ball back and forth hundreds of times a day,” said Michael Dickson, the Sydney-born punter for the Seattle Seahawks.

The training system at Prokick Australia has become so dependable that N.C.A.A. coaches regularly offer scholarships to punters they have seen only on video and who have yet to play a single down of American football. The academy’s founder and director says it has sent more than 200 Aussie players to American colleges since 2009, and that roughly 95 percent have received their degrees.

Australian punters face intense pressure when they go to the United States to play. “You’re always the new guy; you don’t know anyone,” said Nathan Chapman, founder of Prokick. “You’ve been recruited even though you never played a down in your life, and you’ve got to deliver.”Credit…Asanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

“Our guys really believe in the way they’ve trained punters and the transparency through the process,” said Neal Brown, the football coach at West Virginia University. “They send you film, you get to know the punters, and, what we’ve really enjoyed is, we can kind of tell them, this is the scheme we run, this is what we’re looking for.”

In the N.F.L., Dickson of Seattle, Mitch Wishnowsky of the San Francisco 49ers and Lou Hedley of the New Orleans Saints are Australian punters on active rosters. Cameron Johnston of the Houston Texans is on injured reserve. Arryn Siposs of the Philadelphia Eagles remained on the practice squad Wednesday; the team had not signed another punter, increasing the probability that Siposs will be activated for Sunday’s season opener.

In the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl last February, Siposs mis-hit a punt that was returned 65 yards — the longest return in the championship game’s history — to set up a pivotal touchdown pass for Kansas City in the Chiefs’ 38-35 victory.

Typically, though, Australians are proficient at kicks that translate to punting in American football in terms of reliability, accuracy and elusiveness, which can leave opponents struggling to handle the ball or having to drive long distances to try to score points.

Liam Dougherty participating in a drill.Credit…Asanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

“I know that style of punter has forced changes in how returners are coached, given the nature of the ball off the foot is different,” Troy Dannen, the chairman of the N.C.A.A. football competition committee and the athletic director at Tulane University, which has its first Aussie punter this season, wrote in an email.

The torpedo resembles a traditional spiral that can be used to rocket a punt from deep in a team’s own territory. The banana kick, in which the ball is angled across the foot, helicopters through the air and curves away from punt returners, making it difficult to field.

The drop punt, launched with the nose of the ball downward and kicked end over end, is a short, or “pooch,” punt. It is known for its precision, bite and backspin in placing the ball inside an opponent’s 10- or five-yard line. A college team starting a drive inside its own 10 has a 3 percent chance of scoring a touchdown; that percentage more than triples if the drive begins at the 20.

“A golfer doesn’t go, hey, can I get this within 20 yards of the pin?” said Nathan Chapman, 48, the founder and director of Prokick Australia, who spent a preseason with the Green Bay Packers as a punter in 2004. “A golfer needs to stick it close. Inside the 20 doesn’t win you the Masters.”

Chapman watched a punter during practice. Credit…Asanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

N.C.A.A. rules allow the entire punting team to charge downfield upon the snap of the ball, compared with just two players in the N.F.L. College punters from Australia often roll to one side or the other, slightly delaying their kicks and allowing coverage to extend like the tendrils of a spider web. And they are adept at kicking across their bodies, whipping the ball in a direction the returner may not be expecting or be able to reach easily.

Last season, Adam Korsak, an Aussie punter at Rutgers University, won the Ray Guy Award after allowing minus-11 cumulative return yards. Only one of his 75 punts was returned for positive yards.

“I think the biggest thing is that playing Australian rules football, they learn to run and keep their eyes up and only look at the ball for a split second,” said Rutgers Coach Greg Schiano. “They’re able to look at the rush and understand whether the pressure is on them or not.” Traditional punters, he said, concentrate on the ball and “have no idea what the rush is doing.”

Prokick Australia was founded in 2007, and the trickle of what became a pipeline to American universities began two years later. Trainees at the academy pay nearly $10,000 for what can be a year-plus of refining their punting technique; participating in strength training and conditioning programs; gaining assistance in becoming eligible to attend college in the United States; familiarizing themselves with the rules and equipment of American football; and trying to draw the interest — via taped or live videos of their kicks — of universities seeking Australian punters.

Punter hopefuls at Prokick Australia. This year, nearly half the schools in college football’s top division have Australian punters.Credit…Asanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

Even with months of preparation, though, the punters face cultural, social and athletic pressure upon arriving in the United States.

“You’re always the new guy; you don’t know anyone,” Chapman said. “You’ve been recruited even though you never played a down in your life, and you’ve got to deliver.”

Australians arrive with varied backgrounds. Some are teenagers. Others are older and hope to extend their athletic careers after thwarted attempts to play professionally in Aussie rules football or rugby. Sandy, the T.C.U. punter, is 30. He previously worked in a paper mill. Others have sold ice cream and repaired sprinklers.

The chance to play American football “has completely changed the trajectory of my life,” said Sandy, who is pursuing a master’s degree.

Johnston, the Texans’ punter, was working at a gym when he was invited to take a recruiting visit to Ohio State University in 2013. He said he had never really heard of the school and “had to go home and Google it.” Not until he began punting in a home stadium that held 100,000 spectators did he fully realize the popularity of college football in the United States.

Punting practice under heavy skies at Prokick. Jordy Sandy, the punter for Texas Christian University, said the chance to play American football “has completely changed the trajectory of my life.”Credit…Asanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York Times

Some Aussie punters reach the U.S. having seen only a few games on television or having experienced American football solely via movies or the Madden N.F.L. video game.

Josh Selmes, 26, a former rugby player, first wore American-style shoulder pads — Aussie rules football and rugby involve little or no protective padding — nine months ago. He said he had trouble lifting his arms. His first helmet was so big it “shook like a bobblehead.”

But he has stuck with it and works three jobs — in a coffee shop, as an electrician and stocking grocery shelves — while training with Prokick Australia. He’s now seeking a scholarship in the United States.

“Just to chase the dream of playing college football,” Selmes said.

Liam Dougherty, 19, who trains with Prokick Australia while working as a teacher’s aide and a bartender, has the same dream. He said that friends suggested last year that he had a powerful leg and should try to become a punter.

“What’s that?” he replied.

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