Australian punter Wade Lees making transition to America at Maryland

Wade Lees, 28, of Australia, left, is the freshman punter for the University of Maryland, after ending his career as an Aussies Rules footballer. He is following another Aussie, former College Park kicker Brad Craddock, right.
Wade Lees, 28, of Australia, left, is the freshman punter for the University of Maryland, after ending his career as an Aussies Rules footballer. He is following another Aussie, former College Park kicker Brad Craddock, right. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

COLLEGE PARK — Wade Lees walked off the plane last January to begin his new life as a football player at Maryland wearing the same clothes as when he left he his mother's home in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia.

"You come from an Australian summer, which was like 105 degrees into four feet of snow, I walked off the airplane in sandals, board shorts and a singlet [tank top]," Lees recalled Wednesday, sitting on a bench outside Gossett Team House. "It was quite a contrast."


In the eight intervening months, Lees has gone from being a former 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 prove before being compared to 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. We've really been taking advantage of field position for the most part," Durkin said on a teleconference Monday. "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 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."

Or kicking with his mother in the backyard.

Getting ready for her son's transition to the American college game, Lees' mother, Kim, served as his long snapper as he practiced catching footballs and then mimicked the form he would use in kicking them — both rugby-style and NFL-style.

By then, Lees' mother was long past the concern she had for her youngest son's new sport.

"When I first told mum I wanted to pursue this path in punting, she originally thought I was going to be gambling, because back home we call horse racing 'punting,'" Lees said. "It's pretty funny going from a backyard in Melbourne with your mum snapping you the ball to playing out before potentially 100,000 at Penn State or Michigan. It's pretty surreal."

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 D-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 that 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. I had spent six years chasing that dream."

During his suspension, Lees had spent a few months traveling in Europe and the U.S., and realized a number of former Australian footballers were punting and kicking for college teams, including former Maryland star Brad Craddock.

"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. In order 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 top 10 percent of your high school. Honestly, I don't know how I got into it. … It's was a bit of miracle."

Lees had used 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 U.S.

One of the schools most interested in Lees happened to be Michigan, which had a senior punter named Blake O'Neill from Australia. Special teams coach John Baxter had offered scholarship to Lees before taking a job at Southern Cal.

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 freshmen punters at North Carolina and Houston, respectively.

Other Aussie punters include Dan 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.

"In his press conference the other week, Les Miles said he won't take a punter unless he's Australian," Lees said of the LSU coach.

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 U.S. 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 is 6-foot-2, 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.'"