Once again, an Aussie makes his mark

Terps punter Wade Lees is the lat­est in a string of Aus­tralian foot­ball con­verts

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND FOOTBALL - By Don Markus don.markus@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/sport­sprof56

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.’ ”

AMY DAVIS/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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