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How and why the Australian punting pipeline works

The trans-Pacific punter exchange continues.

Al Bello/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

It begins in the backyards and public parks of Southeast Australia. Youngsters run around in a windy climate, lining up and kicking the ball.

The Australia-to-American football pipeline for punters and kickers made its first splash in 1994, with Darren Bennett punting for the San Diego Chargers. It had roots in the late-1980s, when Colin Scotts became the first Aussie to earn a football scholarship and played briefly as a defensive end for the St. Louis Cardinals, and in 1965, when Lamar University track athlete Colin Ridgeway of Melbourne played in three games for the Dallas Cowboys.

Since then, the pipeline has taken off. Dozens of players have made the international jump to American football. That includes current NFL punters Jordan Berry of the Pittsburgh Steelers and college breakout star Brad Wing of the New York Giants, plus the two players who've won the last three Ray Guy Awards, given annually to college football's best punter.

A small industry emerged with the goal to transition Aussies from their style of Australian-rules kicking to the American style. Several programs have sent alumni to the highest reaches of the punting and kicking professions.

Among the most recent is a New York Jets draft pick from Sam Houston State, punter Lachlan Edwards from Hastings. The Jets also signed highly quotable Utah punter Tom Hackett of Melbourne as Edwards' competition, meaning three NFL teams are likely to start Aussie punters this season.

From 2005-07, the Jets played another Australian punter, Ben Graham, who inspired kickers from this generation when they were still playing Australian Rules Football in the warm winds of Victoria.

The paths of all the players mentioned in this story

Australian punters and kickers have managed to do well in the American version of the game. But why?

For one thing, kicking a ball is common practice on Australian schoolyards. It's a regular lunchtime activity, and both rugby and Aussie Rules football require kicking.

"Growing up in that sort of environment, you’re getting thousands and thousands and thousands of reps every year," Berry, of Essendon, said.

"It’s windy, and you know you’re kicking it sideways rather than just doing a one-step, standard, two-step, straight-on punt," Berry said. "[It] helps you adjust a lot better when you do get put into tougher situations."

Though most of the Australian kickers come from the same general area, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get to the training camps. Nathan Chapman, head coach at popular skills academy ProKick Australia and a former Green Bay Packers preseason player, used to fly three hours from Brisbane to Melbourne to work with Hackett.

"Nowadays the boys are kind of prepared to come over," Hackett said. "They don't have to kick for three, four hours by themselves, because Nathan's down there now and they have four sessions a week."

Hackett won the Ray Guy in each of his last two years at Utah, following up Aussie countryman Tom Hornsey at Memphis.

But Hackett, not used to weight training, was shell shocked when he arrived to play FBS football in 2012.

"[Now] they have a weight program," Hackett said. "When I got trained in the gym here at Utah, I was seeing stars for an hour after the workout and didn't know how I was going to survive four years."

Recent Cleveland Browns signee Brad Craddock lived in Adelaide and trained with Cameron McGillivray of OzPunt. OzPunt is headquartered in Carnegie, Victoria, while Adelaide is in South Australia, a different state. The two had to make ends meet with weekend practices and film reviews.

"Brad was just like every other guy that comes through OzPunt," McGillivray said. "He had a background in Australian Rules Football, got toward the end of high school and thought, ‘What am I gonna do?’ and wanted to give American football a go."

The former Maryland player trained with OzPunt for about 15 months as a punter, though he would later kick for the Terrapins, going on to win the Lou Groza Award for best college kicker in 2014.

Talent is obvious, but getting players to the United States can be a different matter altogether.

When he meets them in Australia, McGillivray asks players which position they’re interested in, then tells them what it is college and NFL coaches expect. McGillivray then asks them to kick for him.

In addition to camps in Australia, potential specialists will fly to America for camps, where former players and coaches can tweak their skills. Berry used to travel to ProKicker.com camps in California and Nevada, professional clinics that can also mean exposure.

"That’s where I ended up meeting some guys from Eastern Kentucky," Berry said.

He ended up spending a half-decade at Eastern Kentucky before signing with the Steelers.

American kicking coaches might pay visits to OzPunt and ProKick, and kicker recruiting analysts often include Aussies in their rankings. Craddock was considered a potential Division I player as both a kicker and punter in 2012, for example.

It's often a rocky road to get from Down Under to the big stage.

Sometimes, older players cross the ocean in an attempt to get an NFL tryout. Others, even despite their age, go the college route. Maryland recently added Wade Lees, who became a 27-year-old freshman.

Players put videos on YouTube, hoping a coach somewhere runs across the footage. Former Utah special teams coach Jay Hill found Hackett that way, then told head coach Kyle Whittingham.

"And he went up to Coach Whitt, the head coach at Utah, and said, 'I'm going to Australia to recruit this Australian punter, blah blah blah,'" Hackett recalled.

The transcontinental process is complicated for specialists, since they aren’t in the spotlight like American high school players.

"It’s funny, because it was more I was contacting them, just emailing and calling coaches at 2 or 3 in the morning, and I’d get a few replies," Craddock said.

Maryland was the only school to offer Craddock a scholarship. TCU flew out to see him kick, and he also spoke with coaches from Boston College, Arkansas and Texas Tech.

Hackett wasn’t so lucky. Utah wouldn’t offer him any scholarship money at first. He spent a year as a walk-on.

"My dad said, 'If you can't get it within the year, you're coming home,'" Hackett said. "So I just clawed and scratched my way to get that paper."

Now, he’ll have a rookie NFL contract to show his father, though the guarantees for undrafted free agents are close to zero.

Craddock joined the Terps as a punter, but when their kicker needed hip surgery, Craddock had to step in during his freshman season in 2012. After a rough transition, he set school records for the longest field goal (57 yards), single-season field goal percentage (94.7 percent), career field goal percentage (81.7 percent) and consecutive field goals made (24).

In addition to a relatively modest NFL contract, Craddock is graduating from Maryland with a degree in agribusiness and a minor in leadership in May. The importance of that degree is something McGillivray ingrains.

"The first thing i make sure the guys are good at is taking the classes," he said. "Because I can’t send someone over and then they don’t meet the academic eligibility, because that is going to affect everyone else that potentially comes through. Worst case-scenario, you’re going to end up with a free education."

Australia is getting a bit of a football spotlight. Will it expand beyond kickers and punters?

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has unveiled plans with Chapman to host a satellite camp at ProKick in Monbulk in June. Former Michigan punter Blake O'Neill went from Melbourne to Ann Arbor (via Weber State, the current home of the coach who found Hackett) to become a Ray Guy candidate last year, so Michigan has some familiarity.

The sport has grown considerably, so it shouldn't be a surprise. But the pipeline has been mostly limited to specialists. An exception is Jarryd Hayne, the New South Wales native who played years of Aussie rugby and jumped to the San Francisco 49ers last season as a running back and return man.

Also drafted this year was Georgia Tech defensive tackle Adam Gotsis of Melbourne, in round two by the Denver Broncos. And Alabama defensive tackle Jesse Williams spent two seasons with the Seahawks before injury and disease shortened his career.

Their' countrymen think non-kickers could trickle across the ocean.

"It's gonna take time," Hackett said. "The game of American football's evolving. You see games nowadays get played in London a couple times a year. Australia, with Jarryd Hayne's help, has been slowly but surely kind of jumping on the bandwagon, and more and more people are interested in it. I know Nathan goes to a Super Bowl party [in Australia] every year, and he says each year there are a couple more hundred people there, so I think in time it'll happen.

"It's just there are a couple sports back home that dominate the papers, and that's just the nature of the beast, I guess."

American football is still a niche sport in Australia, not nearly on the level of Aussie Rules, rugby or the seasonal passions of cricket and soccer. College football at least lines up with Australia's weekend, unlike the NFL.

But Berry thinks his home country is an "untapped market."

"In terms of the college level, there's thousands of Australians that would easily be able to come over here and with 12 months be a very solid starter for most college football teams, especially Division I, if not AA or Division II," Berry said. "There's definitely a lot of room for that in the future."