Gophers import punting solution from Australia

MINNEAPOLIS — After struggling in the punting game last season, the University of Minnesota football team was looking for answers this fall as it looked to solidify its special teams.

The Gophers’ solution may have been found on the other side of the world.

Sophomore punter and Melbourne native Christian Eldred transferred to Minnesota from Monash University in Australia, opting to give up Australian-rules football to play the American version. And in his first game with Minnesota, Eldred got his chance. He punted five times for the Gophers in their season-opening win last Thursday against UNLV for an average of 36.8 yards per punt, including two punts inside the 20-yard line.

“I didn’t decide on a punter, and then I changed punters,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said after Thursday’s win. “… I thought Christian did a good job. He kept the ball on the pooches inside the 20. I thought he punted the ball well. I was pleased with that.”

It was only one game, but the Aussie showed that he could translate his skills from one form of the game to another. But even he didn’t know if he’d get a chance to kick in Thursday’s opener, given that Minnesota has four punters on its roster.

“To be honest with you, I wasn’t too sure. I just felt like coming over here was obviously a great opportunity,” Eldred said. “Coming in for the start of fall camp, I just wanted to work on the things I needed to work on, obviously pick up a lot of the trades of the game. I didn’t expect to be able to punt in the game, but once Coach called me in, I felt like we did a good job.”

Australian-rules football barely resembles the American game. Eldred has a hard time even comparing the two or noting the biggest differences. Among the obvious discrepancies are the field shapes — Australian-rules football is played on an oval field — and all players in the Australian game are kicking the ball throughout the contest.

The scoring is much different, too. There are four posts on each end of the field: two tall “goal posts” on the insides, and two “behind posts” on the outsides of the goal posts. A kick that travels between the inside goal posts is worth six points. A ball that goes between a goal post and a behind post counts for one point.

Got all of that? Even Eldred admits that a quick search of YouTube is the best way for Americans to understand how the Australian version works.

The ball in the Australian game is also advanced forward by kicking, which is why almost all Australian-rules football players are adept kickers. Even so, Eldred wanted to improve his kicking ability, so he worked with ProKick Australia, which helps players who aspire to play college or pro football in America. The program has produced several Division-I punters, including Eldred. Punter Jamie Keehn recently joined LSU, while Tom Hackett is walking on at Utah as a freshman this season.

At ProKick, Eldred worked with Nathan Chapman — who had a successful career in the Australian Football League before signing a contract with the Green Bay Packers in 2004 but never played — and John Smith, a British kicker who spent time in the NFL in the 1980s. ProKick not only helps players with their punting skills but also prepares them for the logistics such as paperwork that go along with enrolling at an American university.

“It was a long process,” Eldred said. “But it was definitely something that was worth doing, in my opinion.”

Eldred grew up watching the NFL as well as college football. His two favorite teams were the Cincinnati Bengals — the first NFL team he watched — and the Boise State Broncos, a team whose underdog mentality Eldred admired. Back home, he supports the Melbourne-based St Kilda Saints of the Australian Football League.

Now, of course, his favorite college team is the Gophers, the school that has given him a chance to live out his dream of playing American football.

“One of my friends in high school in Australia actually came over to do the same thing. That sort of sparked the idea in my mind that it could possibly happen,” Eldred said. “Shortly after I finished high school, I started to think about possibly looking at doing this.”

Along with Eldred, the Gophers also have punters Peter Mortell, Dan Orseske and David Schwerman on the roster. Orseske saw most of the starting punting duties last year but was replaced by Schwerman late in the season. On Thursday, it was Eldred kicking five of the Gophers’ seven punts while Schwerman punted the other two. Mortell was dealing with a leg issue and Orseske didn’t even make the trip to UNLV.

Any one of the four could take the field Saturday when Minnesota hosts New Hampshire for its home opener at TCF Bank Stadium, but Eldred made a case for himself in his first-ever American football game.

“To be honest, I’m not sure,” Eldred said in regards to his playing time. “I think that as a group, we need to improve. … No matter who Coach goes with on the day, I feel that any one of the four punters can get the job done as well as obviously the rest of the unit.”

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