Punters from Down Under, pt. 2 — continued success

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Nathan Chapman admits that it took awhile for his Aussie punting experiment to catch on with American coaches. With limited resources and plenty of logistical challenges, there was a laundry list of reasons why Chapman’s idea of putting Australians into American college football was a far-fetched idea.

Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, several prominent Australian rules footballers shocked the world by trading in a pudgy Sherrin for an American pigskin. Ben Graham, Sav Rocca, Darren Bennett, and others all had stints in the NFL, using their impressive leg strength to become star punters. Inspired by them, Chapman decided to take the same route to the NFL following an injury-marred eight-year stint in the AFL.

Chapman’s NFL aspirations didn’t pan out — he spent the 2005 preseason with the Green Bay Packers before getting cut and going back home to Melbourne. In the years since, the direct AFL-to-NFL pipeline has slowed down considerably.

But the NFL’s temporary loss has been Chapman’s gain.

In 2006, he started ProKick Australia — a unique training academy that would take young Aussie footballers, retrain their natural kicking abilities to American football, and send them off to US colleges. Based on his own experiences in the States, Chapman believed that college football could be an ideal conduit for young Aussies whose AFL dreams hadn’t worked out and who were looking for something new.

Fast-forward over a decade, and ProKick currently has over 40 athletes punting at various levels of the NCAA, the junior college system, and even three in the NFL. The past four Ray Guy Award winners have been Aussies, and more ProKick punters are on the way each year. It’s become a lucrative deal for Chapman and his business partner, John Smith, who train athletes not just how to kick an American ball, but the finer mechanics of kicking, NCAA eligibility rules, the daily grind of balancing academics and athletics, etc.

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Part of Chapman’s instructions are not just learning about American college football and adjusting to a smaller, pointier ball, but about knowing when to release, getting the hangtime right, knowing when to roll out and kick it, or simply drop-kick it. This has sometimes caused issues with the ultra-traditional NFL, where special teams structures are different from college, and where roll-out punts aren’t viewed as particularly effective. Therefore, ProKick athletes must be adept at both styles and execute them to perfection.

The punt has long been considered a boring play in football. While every team appreciates a good one, most fans use the punt play itself to grab a new beer from the fridge or text back a friend. It’s become Chapman’s task to take that one “boring” play and turn it into an art form.

“There are analytics for everything, but punting might be the last frontier in terms of gaining that extra edge that coaches want,” Chapman explains. “Punting, if it is done at an elite, expert level, can dramatically influence the outcome of a game.”

Quite frankly, it’s a win-win situation for most of Chapman’s students. Many of them are older than the average college freshman, and the majority have a background in Aussie rules from a young age, giving them the raw talent to punt an American ball. It’s relatively easy for Chapman to visit a kid and recruit him to play a completely different sport in a completely different country, with the added opportunity to get noticed by the NFL, play for roaring home crowds, and get a degree. Some of the athletes in question are coming off injuries and/or disappointing Aussie rules careers and are inherently intrigued by the possibilities of college football.

However, with that comes added wrinkles, like the fact that in the US, the vast majority of college punters are walk-ons. It’s rare for a high school punter, even if he’s nationally ranked, to get multiple scholarship offers.

“We realize that if we want to get a scholarship offer, we need to be better than a thousand kids in America each year. We’ve got to have that X factor,” Chapman says.

The ProKick alums themselves have amazing stories. No two are alike:

  • Utah’s Mitch Wishnowsky won the 2016 Ray Guy Award in his first season as a Ute, but he was once a high school dropout who apprenticed as a glass-installation specialist in his hometown of Perth.
  • Jack Sheldon was recruited to ProKick after suffering a foot injury in Aussie rules; despite not having kicked for 10 weeks, Sheldon impressed Chapman with his raw talent. Four months later, in August 2016, Sheldon earned a scholarship to Central Michigan and is now playing for head coach John Bonamego — who once coached Chapman himself with the Packers!
  • Indiana’s Haydon Whitehead only found out about ProKick because his older brother played in an amateur gridiron league in Melbourne.
  • Oregon State punter Nick Porebski was recruited by Chapman when he was still a teenager playing Aussie rules in Melbourne. After Porebski suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery, he decided to give punting a try, landing for a year at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah before heading north to Oregon State in the fall of 2015.
  • Cameron Johnston grew up in the footy-obsessed city of Geelong and made it to the AFL’s Melbourne Demons, but never played a senior level game for them. Eventually, he found ProKick and earned a scholarship to Ohio State, where he started all four years and left second in school history in punting average. Johnston now punts for the Philadelphia Eagles and his cousin, Michael Sleep-Dalton, also went through ProKick and is currently a sophomore at Arizona State.
  • Houston punter Dane Roy worked the phones as a customer service rep at a Melbourne ice cream factory and was recruited by Chapman after winning a “biggest kick” competition in Aussie rules. Roy landed at Houston last year as a 28-year-old freshman.

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One of ProKick’s best known alums is former Utah punter and two-time Ray Guy winner Tom Hackett. Perhaps more so than anyone else, Hackett may have been the one who proved to the entire country that Aussies had staying power in the American game.

Standing at only 5’10”, 180 pounds, Hackett came to Salt Lake City as an unheralded walk-on. Four years later, he was a back-to-back Ray Guy winner and was even on the Pac-12 All-Century Team. In addition to his uncanny punting accuracy, Hackett was also well-known for his dry Aussie humor and unique bond with a fellow former walk-on, Utes placekicker Andy Phillips. Hackett’s NFL dream didn’t pan out, but he’s found steady work hosting ESPN radio shows in the Salt Lake City region since then. He paved the way for his successor, Wishnowsky, and many, many others.

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The coaches who are in contact with Chapman have been convinced to keep looking Down Under. One of them, former LSU boss Les Miles, once quipped that “if the guy can’t speak Australian, I don’t want him.”

Another ProKick convert is Virginia Tech special teams coordinator James Shibest.

Shibest and Hokies coach Justin Fuente worked together at Memphis for several years and both recruited 2013 Ray Guy winner Tom Hornsey. So when Fuente moved to Blacksburg to take over in December 2015, he took Shibest with him. This past February, Shibest recruited and signed another ProKick alum — Oscar Bradburn, a 19-year-old Sydneysider.

“They’re extremely competitive, No. 1. Just through the way they’re brought up playing Australian rules football — that’s what I’ve liked the most and we’ve had success with it, so we’re excited about him,” Shibest said of Bradburn on National Signing Day.

2017.04.22. Spring Game at VT.

Another believer in the Aussie tradition is former NFL coach and current Illinois head man Lovie Smith. Earlier this year, Smith used a scholarship on ProKick’s Blake Hayes, who stands at an imposing 6’6″, 220 pounds and landed in Champaign over the summer. “He has a strong leg. He’s calm. He’s a confident player. We’re going to call on him a lot,” Smith said of Hayes.

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Hayes, another Melbourne native, admitted that he was amazed at the recruiting process that some of his freshman teammates had to endure. In today’s social media-obsessed world, Chapman is acutely aware of how many young kids de-commit, commit, then de-commit again from high-profile programs. To avoid any potential flakiness, the ProKick coaches handle the entire recruiting process for their students and use their best judgment to determine which school(s) are the best fit for them athletically and academically. It could be seen as a risky move, but Chapman wants ProKick’s reputation to remain good and for his pupils to make a firm decision when the time is right.

“Our coaches try not to tell us a huge amount on what schools are interested,” Hayes explains. “It can boost confidence too much and we get ahead of ourselves. Coaches can’t see us in person. Basically when a coach starts speaking to my coach first, and then once they display genuine interest, they’ll call the player. I think it’s a good thing. I don’t know how these guys do it with multiple offers. I think it keeps us level-headed.”

In addition to a steady group of coaches who are consistently interested in new Aussie faces, Chapman’s program has benefitted from positive PR in their own backyard; they’ve fostered a loyal group of Aussie coaches, families, and the like that have sustained them. With college coaches in the States requesting tape from ProKick athletes nearly every month, they’ve become a veritable football factory in a country that doesn’t even play the American version of the sport. Friends and family of ProKick athletes stay up to ungodly hours to watch the games live.

“They don’t really grasp it yet, but with guys coming over and having success, Australians are starting to see college football is a really big deal,” says Penn State senior punter Daniel Pasquariello.

Parents of ProKick athletes have also been able to provide glowing reviews:

We couldn’t be happier with the way this has turned out and thoroughly recommend ProKick Australia to any future participant….this has been a fantastic, life-changing experience and once again we thank you for all your help and encouragement — in not just the boys’ college aspirations, but also in generating a great bond between all concerned. We wish all the boys in the USA the best of luck.

-Paul & Joanne Johnston, parents of Cameron Johnston (formerly of Ohio State, now with the Philadelphia Eagles)

Nathan is extremely personable and patient and has a wealth of knowledge about the technical aspects of punting.  Nathan and John both relate well to their students and have a very effective teaching manner….we are deeply indebted to the ProKick team who delivered exactly what they promised. 

Steve & Sally Gleeson, parents of Tim (Rutgers) and Will Gleeson (Ole Miss)

Nathan is personable and enthusiastic; he did not pressure us, but patiently explained to us what was available and how he could assist and train Alex….we found Nathan and John to be genuine and sincere….ProKick Australia doesn’t just get positions for the boys, they re-train their kicking abilities and they continue to support them, even three years after placement, and they match the boys to an area in which they feel they will thrive.

Ken & Gillian Dunnachie, parents of Alex Dunnachie (Hawaii)

As of the 2017 season, there are currently over 40 ProKick punters in the FBS, the FCS, the NFL, CFL, Division 2, and the junior college system. How many more will come each year? Good question. Chapman just wants to focus on the process year by year and continue to foster lasting relationships with athletes and coaches alike. Still, the man remains confident:

“You will see that our punters will dominate as they’re given more scope and more opportunities to do what they do best.”

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