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How Aussie punters became mainstays of college football, NFL

techsm5

Tuesday afternoon in Melbourne, Australia, Nathan Chapman and John Smith plan to reunite and watch the College Football Playoff National Championship game between No. 1 Georgia and No. 3 TCU.

Aussies aren’t normally known as big football fans, but Chapman and Smith are exceptions. They have a good reason to be interested in the national title game which is taking place at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, 19 hours from Melbourne time zone.

Georgia freshman punter Brett Thorson and senior TCU punter Jordy Sandy are both products of Prokick Australia, a program Chapman and Smith co-founded in 2007 to train Australians to become college football bettors.

“It’s going to be very interesting to watch that kind of fight on the court and see who can turn the court around when it’s needed,” Chapman said in a phone interview this week. “That should be a lot of fun.”

Thorson and Sandy are among approximately 75 Division 1 punters who have made their debuts thanks to Prokick. Growing up outside of Melbourne, Chapman had played Australian rules football, a popular physical sport in the country that involves kicking the ball while defended. Chapman played eight years in professional Australian rules football before breaking into the NFL.

Chapman signed as a free agent with the Green Bay Packers in March 2004, but was released in August after appearing in two preseason games and punting three. He later trained with the Cincinnati Bengals and attended minicamp with the Chicago Bears, but he never kicked in an NFL regular season game.

Chapman then returned to Australia, where he met Smith, a UK native who was playing for a professional football team near Melbourne. The two decided to start Prokick after realizing there were thousands of kids playing Aussie Rules football who could adapt to punting in football.

In 2009, the first three Australians trained by Prokick signed scholarships with American colleges: Alex Dunnachie (Hawaii), Thomas Duyndam (Portland State) and Jordan Berry (Eastern Kentucky).

Since then, dozens of other Australians have made their way to major colleges, although Chapman and Smith’s journey hasn’t been easy as they didn’t grow up in the United States and didn’t have too many contacts among college football coaches.

Still, Chapman credits two men in particular for helping him navigate the college football landscape early on and introducing him to college coaches: John Bonamego, a longtime coach who was the special teams coordinator for Packers when Chapman played in Green Bay, and John Dorsey, a longtime NFL executive who knew Chapman throughout his time with the Packers.

“They’ve been great in helping me connect with some coaches along the way, certainly when I was just starting out,” Chapman said. “I’m forever grateful to have been in contact with these two.”

That’s not to say Prokick caused a stir overnight. Chapman and Smith worked with players on their technique several times a week, coached them for months, and made recordings of their clearances which they sent to college coaches, who had never seen the kickers in person and knew little about them.

“It was very, very difficult to convince an American coach in college to take someone who’s halfway around the world that he hasn’t seen,” Chapman said. “There was a lot of confidence and a lot of phone calls and many times where the coaches didn’t take our players.”

Over time, college coaches became more convinced that Prokick was fertile ground for bettors. In 2013, Prokick alum Tom Hornsey of Memphis became the first Australian to win the Ray Guy Award for the country’s top punter. Since then, other Prokick alumni have won the same award: Tom Hackett of Utah in 2014 and 2015, Mitch Wishnowski of Utah in 2016, Michael Dickson of Texas in 2017, Max Duffy of Kentucky in 2019 and Adam Korsak of Rutgers in 2022.

Four former Prokick athletes are currently in the NFL: Wishnowsky (San Francisco 49ers), Dickson (Seattle Seahawks), Arryn Siposs (Philadelphia Eagles) and Cameron Johnson (Houston Texans). Berry, meanwhile, spent seven seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings from 2013 to 2021.

James Sackville, a Prokick alum who played at SMU from 2016 to 2019, said Aussies are natural for punting because they’ve been playing Aussie Rules football since they were young.

“When I was 3 years old, I was kicking the ball in the yard with my dad, just like a 3-year-old would throw a baseball or a football with his dad or someone in the yard (in the States States),” Sackville said. “It’s very natural for us to pick up the skill (to kick) compared to an American kid.”

Players in the Prokick program train three days a week on punting as well as four to five times a week in the gym with cardio and strength and conditioning. Practices often start at 5:30 or 6:30 in the morning. They pay a fee to work with Prokick coaches and trainers and spend 9-18 months before traveling to the United States to play college.

“We’re trying to emulate a college football program,” Chapman said. “We try to get them used to what it’s like to be at university. It’s getting up early, doing your job and training. Our job is to prepare them so that they transition into college football or college life as smoothly as possible.

Over the years, Prokick has accepted more people into the program than they deem capable of someday punting in college. But the method has remained the same insofar as Chapman, Smith or someone else films the punters and sends the videos to the college coaches, who then decide if it’s worth pursuing. Most of the time, Prokick bettors are offered scholarships without visiting colleges or meeting college coaches in person.

Sackville recalled Prokick’s coaches filming an unedited 4½-minute video of him throwing to show college coaches how he could consistently hit the ball with ease.

“We filmed me kicking a ball high and far, which is what all the guys do and send it to coaches,” said Sackville, who is the founder of the Athletes in Recruitment app that connects athletes from around the world. secondary to university coaches. “It’s a pretty simple process. People think it’s really complicated. It’s not. If you have talent, they will find you.

He added: “Australians have done a pretty good job for quite a long time in college football where the relationship and reputational capital is there. You just take Coach Chapman and Coach Smith at their word, because they clearly have the record of 11, 12, 13 years now.

Next week, Prokick will mark another momentous moment when Thorson or Sandy become the second alumni to win a national title, joining Johnson, who was Ohio State’s punter when the Buckeyes won the first CFP title in January 2015.

Sandy and his friend and former paper mill colleague, Tom Hutton, traveled two hours a day from their home near Victoria to train at Prokick. In 2019, they each earned scholarships, Hutton at Oklahoma State and Sandy at TCU, and became two of the Big 12 Conference’s best bettors.

Thorson, meanwhile, grew up in Melbourne and arrived in Georgia in January 2022 shortly after the Bulldogs won the national title. He was considered the top punting prospect in the recruiting class of 2022, according to the 247Sports Composite. Nine other Prokick alumni were also in the top 15 of recruiting rankings and signed scholarships with West Virginia, Boston College, Arkansas, Western Kentucky, USC, Boise State, Pitt, Florida International and Tennessee.

Now, a far cry from the early days of Chapman and Smith having to develop relationships and prove their program was legit, college coaches often reach out to Prokick when looking for punters.

“We always get out-of-the-box messages and phone calls and a referral from someone who wants to get in touch,” Chapman said. “It’s always good to wake up to a text from a coach saying, ‘What do you have and can you tell us how it’s going? “…It’s a great reward and humbling to know that you have that respect for a coach to reach out to us and ask about our program. We really appreciate that.

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