Not only did Jay Hill think outside the box, he thought outside the country.
A few years ago, when the Weber State head football coach was still an assistant at Utah, he saw a video of Aussie rules football player Tom Hackett booming punts on an odd-looking field.
Hill now admits he wasn’t sure what to make of it, but had a hunch he needed to see Hackett in person.
“I went to (Utah head coach) Kyle (Whittingham) and I said, ‘Kyle, listen. You told us think outside the box, I’m thinking outside the box here. I need to go to Austrailia,’” Hill explained.
Hill convinced his boss it was worth a trip “down under” and a visit to ProKick Australia, an athletic academy run by former NFL punter Nathan Chapman, a longtime Aussie rules player.
Essentially, Chapman’s academy trains young Aussies in the finer points of kicking an American football and helps open doors for them to play at U.S. colleges.
Hill said his main objective wasn’t so much to see Hackett, but rather to evaluate how Chapman taught the art of punting.
“It was legit, he was teaching good technique, they could boom it,” Hill said.
Hill said he liked what he saw from Hackett and eventually brought him to Utah, where he has flourished in the Utes’ special teams.
Going into this weekend’s home game with Pac-12 rival USC, the U. leads the nation in net punting (44 yards) and Hackett leads the conference in punt average (47.1 yards).
Those numbers are very good, but the real proof of Hackett’s importance to the team came Monday afternoon during Whittingham’s weekly press conference. As he sat at the podium, Whittingham glanced over and noticed his punter seated next to star running back Devontae Booker.
“Tommy, welcome,” the coach said after doing a double take. “We brought a punter to the press conference.”
The last part of Whittingham’s comment was definitely more of a question than a declarative statement. Still, there was a certain amount of pride in his voice.
“Huge weapon,” he said. “It’s been a big plus for our team.”
Clearly, Hill’s trip to Australia paid off. And now that he’s the head man at Weber State he’s got an Aussie of his own booming punts for the Wildcats.
WSU punter Blake O’Neill and Hackett met at ProKick and have remained friends.
“He showed me around and sort of initiated me to the Utah ways,” O’Neill said. “We talk a couple of times a week. I keep an eye on his stats and watch his games what I can.”
O’Neill, like Hackett, is an excellent punter. They both rank among the country’s best, which is somewhat surprising considering neither grew up desiring to play American football.
Instead they played the Aussie version, where they honed their kicking skills.
“Australian kids have a gift of kicking a football,” Hackett said. “We grow up kicking a football to our parents just like you guys throw a baseball.”
Hackett said he doesn’t mind playing the game away from the spotlight. Punters and kickers aren’t often known, at least not until they mess up in some way.
“I kind of enjoy it to be honest with you,” he said. “My job’s not hard. People make it hard. I’m just a punter, you know?”
O’Neill, who came to Weber State with a bit more polish to his game than Hackett’s, was involved in a couple of fake punts last weekend at Montana State. Whereas Hackett is definitely more laid back, O’Neill is more outgoing and certainly more talkative.
The point, I guess, is that punters, regardless of where they’re born, come in different sizes and styles. But the Aussies are coming and they’re busting outside the box.
Jim Burton is the Standard-Examiner’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 801-625-4265 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @StandardExJimbo