MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia may be better known for flooding the world’s markets with minerals, wool and koala bear soft toys, but the nation’s booming exports of American football punters may be set to make an impression at the NFL Draft this week.
Less than three months after Australian Mitch Wishnowsky played the Super Bowl for the San Francisco 49ers, a slew of punters from Down Under will hope to hear their names called when 32 NFL teams pad their rosters with top college players.
Arryn Siposs, a 27-year-old who left Auburn University to declare for the draft, is high on the list of hopefuls, having beaten a now well-worn path to America from the oval-shaped fields of Australian Rules football back home.
Siposs was cut from the roster of Australian Football League (AFL) team St Kilda Saints four years ago after struggling to carve out a career in the Aussie Rules top flight.
But he is now fielding interest from a string of NFL teams, including the Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets.
“Punters and kickers aren’t normally the guys who they go for in the draft, you have to be doing something exceptional,” Siposs told the AFL’s website.
“But I truly believe that with what I’ve been able to show throughout my two years at Auburn, that I’ve given myself every chance to get my name called out when that time comes.”
Other Australians with fingers crossed include Joel Whitford, who was at University of Washington, and former University of Houston punter Dane Roy.
They can look to Wishnowsky’s experience for hope, with the former University of Utah punter a surprise fourth round pick by the 49ers in last year’s draft.
Michael Dickson, the Seattle Seahawks’ Australian punter, also grabbed his NFL ticket through the draft as a fifth round pick in 2018.
The Australian pipeline has produced six of the last seven winners of the Ray Guy Award, which goes to American college football’s top punter, including Dickson (2017) and Wishnowsky (2016).
With AFL and rugby league Australia’s most popular winter sports, millions of locals have grown up kicking balls around parks.
Despite that, Australians were virtually unheard of in American football until the 1990s, when Darren Bennett established himself as one of the game’s standout punters for the San Diego Chargers, now based in Los Angeles.
Bennett blazed a trail for seasoned AFL players to follow but the collegiate pathway has been a more recent phenomenon, and one largely dominated by ProKick Australia, a specialist academy founded in 2007 by former AFL player Nathan Chapman.
Chapman, who played a few pre-season games with Green Bay Packers but missed out on a contract, set up ProKick to train aspiring punters for a shot at the NFL, or failing that, a scholarship at an American college.
ProKick’s alumni include Dickson, Wishnowsky, the Pittsburgh Steelers punter Jordan Berry and Cameron Johnston of the Philadelphia Eagles.
The academy’s high hit-rate is a product of good talent-spotting, U.S. contacts and Australians’ traditional knack with a football, said Chapman.
“It’s just a natural skill that we’ve got,” the 44-year-old told Reuters.
“Most of the players have an Aussie Rules background which has allowed us to be able to have that niche expertise in kicking a ball.”
All AFL players kick in the high contact sport but the best exponents have breathtaking skill, able to bend the egg-shaped ball through goal-posts from improbable angles seemingly at will, or deliver a pinpoint pass to a team mate from distance when running at full speed.
Such skills are only likely to grow more attractive to NFL coaches as the punter’s role evolves, said Chapman.
“I think we’re right at the cusp of seeing more ambitious plays,” he said.
“The punter now needs to do so much more rather than just kick it high and hope the guy catches it.”
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Christian Radnedge