SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In the run up to the 2019 NFL draft, San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan spent an inordinate amount of time doing something they’d never done before.
“Kyle and I studied punters more this year than I think we ever will,” Lynch said.
A big part of that study time was the Niners’ glaring need for help after Bradley Pinion departed in free agency. But it wasn’t just that.
Quietly, a punting revolution has come to the NFL and it’s happening in plain sight. It’s coming by way of the land down under and a place called Prokick Australia based in Melbourne.
For most of the past decade, Prokick has become sort of a punter factory for the college game, as former Aussie rules football players learn how to kick an American football under the tutelage of Prokick founder Nathan Chapman and his staff. In 2018, about 65 Division I schools had punters who came by way of Prokick.
Now, those punters are starting to make their way to the NFL, as Seattle’s Michael Dickson, Philadelphia’s Cameron Johnston, Pittsburgh’s Jordan Berry and the Jets’ Lac Edwards have all gone through the Prokick experience.
Here is why the @49ers went in the 4th for this guy @mitchwish and he’ll be a big asset to the defence this season. He also has a very accurate going in kick, so they see him as quite a weapon @jenniferleechan pic.twitter.com/5yoCJ1SrFd
— Prokick Australia (@ProkickAus) May 4, 2019
After plenty of film study, the Niners joined the fray by spending a fourth-round draft pick on Utah’s Mitch Wishnowsky, the punter who quickly became the object of their affection at the Senior Bowl in January.
A league that has long leaned heavily on convention is starting to take the time to understand how the arsenal of punts deployed by former Aussie rules football players can impact a game.
“Here’s the way I see it right now: If you are a punter coming through college and you want to make it, you better have all of these shots in your bag because that’s where it’s going,” Chapman said. “Right now, the NFC West has two of them and they’re both very good at it and every other team is going to play them twice. So there’s four games a year where you might play against a real pain-in-the-ass punter. And everyone else is thinking, ‘We better get one — if we don’t get one of these, we are going to be behind the eight ball.'”
Fifteen years ago, Chapman had his own opportunity to make it to the league, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Australian punters such as Darren Bennett and Mat McBriar. After eight years kicking the egg-shaped ball in Aussie rules, he made his way to Green Bay Packers camp in 2004. Without much knowledge of how the NFL worked and the style most teams preferred, Chapman didn’t make it. He also came up short after workouts with the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals the following year.
By 2006, Chapman had gained a better understanding of how the NFL world worked but simply couldn’t afford to keep trekking back and forth without a guaranteed job. Chapman had fallen for the American game and knew he wanted to stay close to it. He also wanted to make sure others who came after him had a way to get to the league and stick.
Chapman checked with some of the coaches he’d met along the way and asked them about their interest in a training academy for prospective punters and kickers. The response was positive, and Prokick was born in 2008.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. While there was a need for a place to train, it was still difficult to get the word out to the right type of candidates.
In the first year, Prokick trained five players. They had three the following year, two the year after that and four or five the year after that before expanding to seven in Year 5.
“It was really, really tough,” Chapman said. “The only reason we are successful now is because I was too stupid to stop.”
Chapman’s belief was rooted in the idea he knew what he was doing and Australian rules football was naturally producing players capable of kicking from a young age. His primary job was to identify and refine talent with a slightly different-shaped ball, but the behind-the-scenes work was far more taxing.
After days of training, Chapman would stay up to email and call coaches who didn’t know him and often refused to pick up an international number. Even when he did get an answer, he had to sell his coaching skills to strangers.
“It was a real hard slog,” Chapman said. “We knew we had the talent.”
Now that Prokick is established, the placement rate is nearly perfect. Chapman estimates the school trains 30 to 40 players, each paying a tuition of about $15,000 per year, which includes three days a week of punting, two days of weight training and academic services to help each player meet college eligibility requirements. According to Chapman, about 92 percent of the players who go through the school land a full college scholarship.
Shots in the bag
Before declaring for the NFL draft after his junior season, Dickson became something of a cult hero at the University of Texas for his uncanny ability to drop punts anywhere, using different kicks and spins that made it nearly impossible for returners to know what he had planned. He won the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s best punter in 2017 and earned MVP honors in the Texas Bowl for dropping eight of 11 punts inside Missouri’s 10-yard line.
Seattle drafted Dickson in the fifth round, taking the then-peculiar step of trading up to ensure it landed him. All Dickson did as a rookie was finish sixth in net punting, land an All-Pro nod and become the first rookie punter to score a Pro Bowl berth since 1985.
While the NFL has been slower to acknowledge Prokick graduates than the college game, Dickson’s performance made more teams sit up and take notice. It wasn’t just that Dickson was productive — it was how he was doing it.
Dickson could kick on the run, from the pocket and put different types of spin on the ball. Above all of that, he also had the ability to place punts just about anywhere he wanted them.
Traditional punting takes about 70 percent of the time Chapman spends training his players, but he also doesn’t want to stifle creativity and the natural ability to make something happen if something goes wrong on a given punt. Chapman refers to this as a punter’s “shots in the bag,” a comparison to a golfer hitting a fade or a draw or putting a certain spin on the ball to attain a specific bounce.
“We sort of practice those shots in the bag just normally by growing up playing [Aussie rules] football,” Chapman said. “You’ve got be able to format them into an American football environment with a different ball. We’ve already practiced those things for 10 years, so it’s now just understanding how it might work in a game or what scenario might make you do it. So we practice it. We still teach how to do Australian-style [kicking] a lot because it’s a different ball. We don’t take it for granted … we don’t take any shortcuts.”
A long-term answer
With a background similar to Chapman’s, Wishnowsky doesn’t lack for shots in his bag, either. The 27-year-old also played Australian rules football, but a series of shoulder injuries derailed his career. When it was over, he would go to a park near his home in Perth, where his friends played games of American flag football.
One day, when messing around with various kicks, he was spotted by Craig Wilson, a friend of John Smith’s — he runs Prokick with Chapman. A few months later, Wishnowsky was out fishing when he got a call from Smith proposing he go to Prokick.
“I went home, told my folks that John Smith is going to send me to America, and they thought I was smoking something,” Wishnowsky said, laughing.
“I went home, told my folks that John Smith is going to send me to America, and they thought I was smoking something.”
Wishnowsky resigned from his job installing glass, moved to Melbourne to learn the American game and punting style and landed at Santa Barbara City College for a year to finish his associate degree. He then joined the Utah Utes, where he’d already been placed a full two years before he’d even met NCAA eligibility requirements.
At Utah, it took little time for Wishnowsky to establish himself. In 2016, his first season punting on such a big stage, Wishnowsky won the Ray Guy Award and consensus All-America honors after averaging 47.7 yards per punt with 30 50-plus-yard punts and leading the nation in punts inside the 10. Wishnowsky was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award in each of his final two college seasons as well and began to realize the NFL was going to come calling.
That belief was only amplified by Dickson’s rookie performance and a growing belief punters can dramatically impact a game. It’s a belief the 49ers clearly established by taking Wishnowsky in the fourth round despite outside criticism for spending such a lofty pick on the position.
“Hopefully he’s the long-term answer,” Lynch said. “We’re talking like a 10-year guy. He checks all the boxes in terms of what you want from a punter. He has a huge leg. [Special teams coordinator Richard] Hightower tells us he’s got all the clubs that you need in the bag. He’s got different styles, which is kind of a new thing in punting. He can hit it with different spins, and so we just felt like a very good prospect at that position.”
The future is now
The amount of work the 49ers put into studying Wishnowsky might have seemed like overkill, but to outside observers like Chapman, it’s exactly what most NFL teams should be doing.
Teams often fear what they don’t understand and that lack of understanding has made it more difficult for teams to know what they’re looking at when they see a punter with an Aussie rules background.
“The NFL still sends scouts out who have never punted a ball to go and scout a punter,” Chapman said. “So they look at film and go, ‘This guy was good — he did this.’ Then you’ve got an Australian come in and he’s doing all these different kicks and they’re like, ‘What the heck is he doing?’ Most don’t even know how to scout that.”
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) May 14, 2019
Take Johnston for example. At Ohio State, Johnston would field the snap and roll to his right a bit before kicking the ball, a kick that is commonly called rugby style in the United States but is more akin to a drop punt in Aussie rules. Johnston had a strong career for the Buckeyes but drew little attention in the pre-draft process before a strong showing at the 2017 NFL scouting combine.
Still, Johnston went undrafted and, according to Chapman, most of the feedback amounted to, “We don’t know what the heck we’re looking at.” But Johnston was always able to punt like other NFL punters. He simply hadn’t been asked to do it in Columbus.
“The NFL spiraled, Cameron didn’t, therefore I’m not going to take a chance on my job by scouting something I don’t know,” Chapman said. “That’s where I think it’s changed.”
The Eagles did notice Johnston and signed him as an undrafted free agent, though he didn’t get his chance until last year. In his first season as an NFL punter, Johnston finished fourth in the league in net punting at 42.7 yards per punt.
With punters like Dickson and Johnston producing at a high level and Wishnowsky expected to do the same, it’s reasonable to expect more teams will start looking for their own weapon in the punting game.
“The coaches now have started to see there is a different way,” Chapman said. “How do we get an edge? If it comes through special teams, boy, the kicker is able to not let the returner touch it, there’s yardage, there’s unpredictability. We know where it’s going but the return team doesn’t. It’s about stopping the opposition from feeling good about what they’re doing.
“I just feel like Shanahan and Lynch have just seen the future and went out and got it. This is the future and right now is the time.”