College Football’s Invasion from Down Under

When the first College Football Playoff semifinal takes place on Friday between Alabama and Cincinnati, both of the punters will be from Australia, because, well, of course they will be.

Freshman Mason Fletcher of the Bearcats and redshirt frosh James Burnip of the Crimson Tide are two of the standouts in what has become an unstoppable wave of punting talent streaming from Down Under and all throughout the college ranks.

It’s not a quirk or a novelty — this season, 53 Australians occupied punting roster positions across 50 of the 130 Division I Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Six of the last 10 winners of the Ray Guy Award — given to the best punter in college football — have been Australians.

Chances are you already knew there were a bunch of Aussies who had made the jump in order to boot a pigskin outrageous distances across America. But the reason why there are so many requires a bit of explaining, and it’s complicated enough to have even tripped up ‘Bama coach Nick Saban.
“He has punted a football before,” Saban told reporters before the start of the season when revealing that Burnip would be the team’s starter. “It’s not like he’s walking off a rugby field and onto the football field for the first time.”

The thing is, he’s not walking off a rugby field at all, which is where most people get mixed up.

The sport of rugby does involve some kicking, but is mostly about driving the ball down a rectangular field with a series of runs and backward passes.

It is a vastly different game to Australian Football — typically called Aussie Rules or just “footy” — which is played on a huge oval, features 18 players per team and has kicking accuracy as an intrinsic part of its skillset. The nature of Aussie Rules requires players to kick the ball out of their hands, often on the run — which is why Australia is producing so many punters, and not so many placekickers.
Virtually all the guys from the sun-kissed land of Crocodile Dundee and Kylie Minogue who are getting a shot in college and sometimes in the pros are formerly from Aussie Rules, which has most popularity in the city of Melbourne and the surrounding state of Victoria.

“Our game is essentially built around punting,” Nathan Chapman, director of Prokick Australia and a former Aussie Rules pro and Green Bay Packers practice squad member, told me via telephone. “By the time an Aussie Rules player reaches 18, he is probably going to have kicked the ball two million times.”

The Prokick program is largely responsible for the Aussie influx and is where both Fletcher and Burnip finetuned their game. Chapman also has five graduates currently in the National Football League, the highest-profile being Michael Dickson of the Seattle Seahawks.

Getting Fletcher placed with Alabama was a significant step, and the conveyor belt is likely to keep turning. Fletcher’s younger brother Max will join him in the SEC with Arkansas next season, while Georgia has former Aussie dairy farmer Brett Thorson as part of its 2022 class.
Many of the Australian imports are a little older than their teammates and bring a level of maturity and some enterprising techniques. Some use “footy” methods to implement spinning “banana kicks” that hop sideways upon bouncing, or top-spun balls aimed at increasing the level of difficulty for the returner.

Due to its popularity, Chapman’s program is invitation-only, and applicants are put through a grueling year-long commitment of punting sessions, gym workouts and theory lessons, as well as extra practice put in on their own time.

Chapman instructs his players to watch as much college and pro football as they can in order to familiarize themselves with the nuances of the game, despite the uniqueness of their position.

“We’re not asking him to play football, we’re asking him to punt the football,” Saban said of Burnip.
As if the sheer weight of numbers didn’t speak for themselves, the Australian invasion and Chapman’s pipeline will get a major stamp of approval this Friday. Alabama is a -450 favorite with FOX Bet, with Cincinnati at +360.

“They are both big, tall lads who can really boot it,” Chapman said on Fletcher and Burnip. “It is about finding the right fit, guys who are really going to go there and embrace the experience and get the most out of it. We look at character, composure, ability and their academics, then use our contacts to try to get them to the right place that gives them the best chance to succeed.”

It used to be much easier for Chapman to follow how his graduates were progressing on a week-by-week basis. Now, with so many of them in the United States, it is no small task. His motto presently is that if one of his players does something particularly good the news will likely reach him via Twitter. And if something goes wrong?

“It’ll likely reach me by Twitter, too,” he laughed.