On average, 12-15 minutes are spent, during an FBS football practice, dedicated to special teams. Punts. Kicks. Holds. Long snap reps. Catching. Returning.
Yet historically, these specific plays change the entire complexity of football games. Why is it that across the country, it feels as though the job of returners is significantly less impactful?
That's because it is.
A glaring, for better or worse, reason is the mass migration of Australian punters into NCAA-sanctioned football programs.
ProKick Australia is behind nearly every single, rostered instance. ProKick, a program out of Melbourne, AUS, trains Australian rules players to adjust to American rules football.
ProKick, founded in 2007, has a lengthy pipeline of success in the United States and Canada, and punt return statistics are backing up a steep, downward shift in return yardage. Hang times of 4.8 to 5.1 seconds are in high demand, and Australian punters can supply.
Entrance into ProKick's system requires at least a 40-yard punt, 4.5-second hang time, and an invitation. On the backside, though, Nathan Chapman, director and head punting coach at ProKick, claims that 90 percent of the program's "graduates" get NCAA scholarships.
Chapman's not being facetious. Australian punters have taken over NCAA rosters, and they've wrecked havoc on return teams.
Former Nebraska head coach Mike Riley told Fox Sports Australia in 2016 that, “the different punt formations, punt styles, that have come up have really made the punt-return team almost more of a defensive unit, making sure you cover everybody.
“[Punters] spread over the field, they go in motion, and that never used to happen in a punt," Riley said. "Everybody would stand back there with a personal protector, a couple of wingbacks, a couple of gunners. You knew where everybody was. You could rush or you could hold up, so it’s a little more complicated now.”
Five seasons later, 2021 saw 53 Australians occupying punting roster positions on 50 Division I FBS teams. Last season, the odds of seeing an Australian punter trot out on 4th down was close to 40 percent.
Of the updated punting success statistics throughout Division I FBS football's 2022 Week 4, six of the nation's top-10 punters are from Australia. No. 2 Laine Wilkins (Houston), No. 3 Jamieson Sheahan (Cal), No. 4 Mason Fletcher (Cincinnati), No. 5 Tory Taylor (Iowa), No. 6 Matt Hayball (Vanderbilt), and No. 9 Mark Vassett (Louisville) have all gone through either Melbourne-area Aussie rules football or have direct ties to ProKick.
It's not an easy transition to American rules, though.
Australian rugby balls are 30 percent larger in circumference than traditional American footballs, and Australians also find pause in the wind-up to punts.
American football dictates a few steps prior to contact, while rugby and Aussie rules players are constantly punting from motion. This is exactly why American rosters are seeing the wave of Australians head to punting, as opposed to placekicking.
Aussie punters kick with their leg slightly bent, as opposed to American-taught punters, who tend to prefer a straight leg connection. That preparation stems from the running wind-up.
Rugby and Aussie rules punts are angled cross-body, a stark, technical difference in punt return coverage for the two American football players on the receiving end.
"It used to be, pro-style punt, you punt it from the same location all the time, and the ball was basically hit down the middle every time, or you could really read the hips of the punter, as far as what direction," WVU head coach Neal Brown said. "Now, with all the Australians, they punt across their body all the time. You're talking about covering 53 yards all the time... It's definitely harder to catch and the punters have gotten better.
"They spray the ball, and something that doesn't get talked about is the rotation. You can kick it and some of [the returners] will drop it and the ball will kick backward end over end. Some of them go forward end over end. Then, you've got spirals."
Rugby punts also fly differently. Spirals aren't the norm; instead, Aussie punters create hang time with flat, tumbling shots, called "torpedoes" and "banana punts", fueled by topspin.
This puts American punt returners at a distinct disadvantage. Instead of a straight, pinpointed X, they have to, potentially, cover, like Brown mentioned, a 53-yard lateral space.
"I think returning punts is the hardest thing in football," Brown continued. "It's like hitting on first tee. You've got people lined up, all eyes are on you, and the ball now, with Australian guys, that ball is wobbling a bunch of different ways and spinning a bunch of different ways. All the stadium lights are different. In my opinion, catching punts is one of the hardest jobs in the game of football."
Current college football punt return statistics have also shown the impact of having Australians fueling the opposition.
In 2020, College Football's Week 9 action saw only 27.5 percent of punts returned. In 2019, Division I teams punted 1.4 times per game and created only 11.8 punt return yards; both were all-time lows, according to NCAA Research. Both those stats would indicate that punters are getting significantly better at their jobs, and in a position saturated with Aussies, it's not too far of a leap to generally create a loose connection.
In Morgantown, the Mountaineers have had two ProKick punters on roster in the program's history: LSU transfer Josh Growden, who spent 2019 in the gold and blue; and recent addition Oliver Straw, an ambidextrous, New Jersey-born, dual citizen.
Straw is one of only four current Aussie punters in the Big 12 Conference. Texas redshirt freshman Isaac Pearson hails from Newcastle, while TCU senior Jordy Sandy and Oklahoma State senior Tom Hutton are both ProKick alumni. One of the most prolific Aussie punters is former Longhorn and current Seattle Seahawk Michael Dickson; drafted in 2018, Dickson has enhanced the punt team role on NFL teams. He's become famous for drop kicking and one 2021 Week 5 double-punt play against the Los Angeles Rams reminiscent of Australian rules football.
In 2021, Kansas State was the sole Big 12 team to register a punt return TD, while the Kansas Jayhawks actually lead the league in punt return average yardage (13.5).
Aussie punters are here to stay, and the job of punt returner is only going to get more difficult as returners adjust to the new style of play.
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