Once again, an Aussie makes his mark
Terps punter Wade Lees is the latest in a string of Australian football converts
COLLEGE PARK — Wade Lees walked off the plane in January to begin his new life as a football player at Maryland wearing the same clothes he had on when he left his mother’s home in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia.
“You come from an Australian summer, which was like 105 degrees, into 4 feet of snow. I walked off the airplane in sandals, board shorts and a singlet [tank top],” Lees recalled earlier this week, sitting on a bench outside Gossett Team House. “It was quite a contrast.”
In the eight intervening months, Lees has gone from being an Australian rules football player, whose dream of playing in his country’s top league had faded, to one of several Australians hoping to join an impressive list of expats who have become successful college punters in the United States.
While he still has quite a bit to learn and a lot to prove before being compared t o Tom Hackett, a Melbourne native who won the Ray Guy Award at Utah the past two seasons, and former Memphis punter Tom Hornsey, an Australian who won the award in 2013, Lees already holds one distinction.
At 28, he is the oldest freshman playing in the Football Bowl Subdivision this season.
It’s not a big deal to Lees, though he understands why others might feel different.
“Playing Australian football, we turn professional when we’re 18. Even when I was 26, I was playing with 18-year-olds anyway,” Lees said. “When I was 18 and first tried to turn pro, there were guys that were 34. For me it feels normal, but I can understand why these guys might think it is a bit weird.”
With his performance in Maryland’s three victories to open DJ Durkin’s career as a head coach, Lees has apparently fixed what had been a problem for the Terps for several years, especially when it comes to pooch punting.
“He’s doing a great job for us,” Durkin said on a teleconference earlier this week. Next Saturday, 3:30 p.m. TV: Big Ten Network Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM Australian Wade Lees, left, is following in the footsteps of countryman Brad Craddock, right, a former Maryland kicker who won the Lou Groza Award in 2014. “The hidden yardage within a game has been huge for us, and Wade’s been a big part of that.”
Of his first 16 punts, six have either been downed or not returned inside the opponent’s 15-yard line. The best one came late in regulation in last Saturday’s 30-24 double-overtime win at Central Florida, when Lees’ final punt was downed at the Knights 1-yard line.
“If I get it inside the 10, that’s a job well done,” said Lees, who is averaging 38.7 yards per punt. “I just visualize me just being home playing Australian football, me just kicking to a mate in the corner.”
Lees said that his journey to Maryland began in the aftermath of an 18-month suspension from Australian rules football. At the time of the ban, Lees was on the verge of jumping from the Victorian Football League — Australia’s equivalent to the NBA Development League — to the Australian Football League.
According to reports, the 2012 suspension was for ordering a fat-burning drug online from a U.S. company that contained a banned substance. Lees, who never received nor used the product, said it is allowed by U.S. professional leagues.
“If that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be here now, so that was sort of a blessing in disguise,” Lees said. “When I came back from my suspension, my interest just wasn’t there.”
During his suspension, Lees spent a few months traveling in Europe and the United States, and realized a number of former Australian footballers, including former Maryland star Brad Craddock, were punting and kicking for college teams.
“Seeing college football and how big it was — I was sort of unaware of it,” Lees said. “I was intrigued.”
The interest grew when he saw a video of one of the Australians, Cameron Johnston of Ohio State.
“I was at work, sitting on Facebook, scrolling through on a lunch break,” said Lees, who worked for a friend’s family construction company. “I saw Cameron’s highlights and saw the crowds he was playing in front of. I just inquired through him on how he did it and he gave me Nathan’s number.”
Nathan Chapman runs an academy in Melbourne called ProKick Australia.
After having Chapman evaluate Lees’ potential, Lees said, “Nathan said I should have a fair go at it.”
The one stumbling block was that Lees had not finished high school. To be accepted at Maryland, Lees had to complete more than a year’s worth of courses at an accredited university in Australia. Lees was rejected by the first three schools to which he applied.
“Since I didn’t complete high school, it’s pretty difficult to get into university,” he said. “The one I got accepted to was probably the hardest to get into. You pretty much had to be in the top10 percent of your high school. Honestly, I don’t know how I got into it. It was a bit of a miracle.”
Lees leveraged his “life experience” as an Australian footballer to get into a sports management program at Deakin University in Melbourne. During a vacation break from school, Lees and several others with similar aspirations joined Chapman for a scouting trip to the United States.
One of the schools most interested in Lees was Michigan, which had a senior punter from Australia named Blake O’Neill. Special teams coach John Baxter had offered a scholarship to Lees before taking a job at Southern California.
In turn, Baxter told Durkin, Michigan’s former defensive coordinator, about Lees.
“As soon as he got the job, he pretty much offered on the spot,” Lees said.
Lees is a few months older than a pair of 27-year-olds from Australia, Tom Sheldon and Dane Roy, who are freshman punters at North Carolina and Houston, respectively.
Other Aussie punters include Daniel Pasquariello at Penn State, USC’s Chris Tilbey, Texas’ Michael Dickson, Memphis’ Nick Jacobs (used specifically for pooch punting) and LSU’s Josh Growden, who replaced countryman Jamie Keehn after Keehn replaced Brad Wing, now one of three Australians punting in the NFL.
Helping Lees in his transition to Maryland has been Craddock, the 2014 Lou Groza Award winner as the top kicker in FBS as a junior. Lees, who introduced himself to Craddock on Facebook, slept on a couch in Craddock’s apartment during his first semester at Maryland.
“I guess the biggest adjustment was the game and how to kick the football,” said Craddock, who came to the United States as a punter and became a record-setting kicker, including a school-record 57-yarder against Ohio State. “Wade’s doing a lot of end-over-end stuff that I didn’t do when I came over, learning how to kick a spiral. Learning the rules of the game, getting that down was sort of the biggest thing.”
Said Lees: “This is new to me. When the coaches are talking about blitzes and things like that, I had no idea what they were talking about. It’s a foreign language to me. I’m just like a sponge. I’m just trying to soak everything in as much as I can.”
One of the hardest adjustments for Lees, who’s 6 feet 2 and 204 pounds, has been the downtime between punts.
“Sitting on the sideline and watching your teammates go to what you would call battle, I feel hopeless because I want to be out there hitting guys, tackling, making plays,” Lees said. “All my job is kicking a ball. It was hard at the start. I’ve even said to Coach a few times, ‘I want to make a tackle.’ He said, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ ”