BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A series of coincidences led LSU coach Les Miles to bring in his first Australian punter.
The Tigers have added two more punters from Down Under since Miles' wife, Kathy, discovered then-exchange student Brad Wing at a Baton Rouge-area high school football game in 2009. And Miles contends the Aussie influence is changing the way college coaches approach special teams, because they have for him.
"What I've always liked about them is they play Australian football, where their passing is their punt," Miles said, referring to drop-kicks — often made on the run and under duress — which serve as passes in the Australian game.
The fact that receiving such passes can mean corralling unpredictable bounces — similar to what American punters might have to do in the event of a bad snap — doesn't hurt, either.
"So not only do they come with punting skills, but they come with ball skills," Miles said.
The current LSU punter is Jaimie Keehn, whose first live snap, in a 2012 game against North Texas, sailed over his head. Miles smiles as he recalls how fluidly Keehn turned what could have been a negative play into a 38-yard net punt that was downed at the North Texas 16-yard line.
"He looked and saw where the ball was, ran back that way, measured to see where the opponents that were approaching were and kicked into a void," Miles said. "So I thought to myself, it probably couldn't have been any better for him, because basically that's exactly what he does in every Australian Rules football game."
Keehn took over for Wing as the first-team punter in 2013. Next in line to punt at LSU is 22-year-old Josh Growden, who briefly played for the Australian Football League club Greater Western Sydney.
"I think the Aussie fad has kind of caught on now as other schools have seen the success Aussies have had," Keehn said. "The results are there."
The past two Ray Guy awards, given to college football's top punter, have gone to Australians. Memphis' Tom Hornsey won it in 2013 and Utah's Tom Hackett last season.
After the success Miles had with Wing, he began seeking out recruits like Keehn and Growden from ProKick Australia, where former NFL punter Nathan Chapman trains Australian athletes to punt American footballs.
In Hackett's view, Australians' biggest advantage in American football shows up not in the long, booming spirals, but in shorter to mid-range punts, when touch and accuracy are crucial.
"The Australian Rules background I think is an advantage because, around midfield, they just have to do what they've been doing their whole life, by comparison to American punters who probably haven't really started punting until they were about 12 when they either figured out they were no good to play another position or they were a soccer transfer," Hackett said. "And the game of soccer just doesn't have the same aspects of Australian Rules football that the American football punter can use."
New Orleans Saints punter Thomas Morstead, whose mother is English and who learned rugby as a child from his uncle and cousins, said he still closely follows college punters and has noticed the Australian influence.
"A lot of these Australian kids are ambidextrous, so they can go both ways rolling out, so there's an element of surprise there," Morstead said. "Whereas somebody like me, if I tried to kick left-footed, I wouldn't have a job.
"The way that they can place the ball on the run is impressive to me, and it's not just direction, it's depth," Morstead added. "It's literally like, put a trash can out on the field and they're getting pretty close."
College coaches now look for such skills in punters, Miles said, and young players in the United States should know that.
"American punters work on that stuff now. They have to. Do they have to compete with Australian punters? They have to compete in punting," Miles said. "I know I'm thinking differently about my punting. I'm thinking about when I can attack the field and when I should be hitting the boundary.
"For me, it's the skill of the guy that I have," Miles said. "If I have a guy, no matter where he's from, that has the ability to do different things, I want to be open to that."
As for whether Australians are more comfortable running fake punts or making tackles, that depends.
"If I had the option to run a fake or punt a ball, I would choose to punt every single time," Hackett said.
Wing infamously had a 52-yard touchdown run called back for celebrating shortly before crossing the goal line. That play wasn't called as a fake, but Miles had told Wing he could run if the receiving team retreated too quickly.
Keehn, meanwhile, said Australian Rules players often "look to lay a big hit and get into good scraps."
In America, Keehn added, punters "don't get to hit too many people, so when we get a chance, we try to make an impression that will last."
With their punting, it seems, they already have.
See a YouTube video of Keehn's first LSU punt here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3VTGiN-JCo
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Posted on Sun, August 30, 2015
by BRETT MARTEL, AP Sports Writer