COLLEGE PARK — After each college football weekend ends in the fall, Wade Lees joins a group of fellow Australians for their own derivation of a favorite culinary tradition from back home.
In this case, call it punter-on-the-barbie.
Nearly three dozen or so current college kickers and punters are members of the group’s Facebook page, titled “The Banter Page,” that Lees helped start when he came to Maryland last season.
“We’re always on there, watching each other, encouraging each other, giving each other a bit of stick if somebody does something silly or stupid,” Lees said Wednesday. “If no one is providing enough banter, we sort of cut him from the group. If anybody gets rid of me, they’ll be in trouble.”
One of the Aussie punters, Indiana redshirt sophomore Haydon Whitehead, had a rough day against Maryland last week, when he had a first-half punt deep in his team’s territory blocked by junior safety Darnell Savage Jr., who recovered the ball and ran it into the end zone.
Lees was actually surprised it happened knowing how quickly the 22-year-old punter gets rid of the ball.
“When we’re watching film, his get-offs are under two seconds. Even I thought it was going to be tough to get to one of his punts,” Lees said. “Surely they did, which was good for us and unfortunately bad for him.”
Asked whether Whitehead took some ribbing among his Aussie peers on Facebook, Lees said: “I sort of felt sorry for him. [The other punters] actually sent me a message saying, ‘Why don’t you like Haydon?’ or something because obviously we went after him. I said, ‘That was purely his [blocker’s] fault. We actually sent [just] two or three [to ensure that they punt] and Savage ended up getting clear.”
Not that Lees heard much about his own 51-yard punt late in the fourth quarter that helped the Terps secure a much-needed 42-39 victory to break a three-game losing streak. The ball was downed at the Indiana 1 by fellow sophomore Jake Funk.
“All the boys are sort of playing their own games at the same time. They can’t really see the games,” Lees said. “No one really saw it, I suppose. I’m not going to go out there and brag.”
It ranked among the highlights of Lees’ athletic career, which included playing around 14 years of Australian Rules Football back home in Melbourne.
“I’ve had a lot of good moments playing Australian Rules Football,” he said. “I supposed here it’s probably up there. Even sort of going out on the punt, I knew it was a big kick and we sort of needed field position.”
Like a golfer flushing a 4-iron, Lees knew the ball was well struck.
“As soon as I hit it, as soon as I felt the impact under my foot, I sort of felt it was a good ball,” he said. “I saw the ball sailing through air and I thought it was going for a touchback and I thought, ‘Oh, bleep, just hold up.’ At the last second, I saw Jake pull it down.”
The punt proved nearly as crucial as Savage’s block and Funk’s pair of 1-yard touchdown runs in the second half.
“It was good to provide something for the team and obviously contribute in that way,” Lees said. “Obviously you see guys making plays on the defense and offense. I just felt good that I provided something to the team in an important situation and help the defense out.”
Said Funk: “A big part of the game is field position and making an opponent travel the whole length of the field to score is such a huge advantage. Him being able to be able to flip the field and do the things he’s been able to do these past couple of weeks has been huge for us.”
While Lees aspires to follow other Australian punters into the NFL, he is concentrating on his college career and following countryman and now close friend Brad Craddock, who came to Maryland as a punter and left as the one of nation’s best placekickers, including winning the 2014 Lou Groza Award.
“If I have half as good a career as Craddock did, then I’ll be happy,” said Lees, who recently began working with another former Terp, former NFL punter and four-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection Adam Podlesh.
Going into the Indiana game, Lees and special teams coach Pete Lembo had decided to try traditional American-style two-step spirals rather than the rugby-style punt Lees has used more often since starting his college career.
“To mix things up, to keep the opponents sort of guessing because I’ve been doing that sort of rugby-style a fair bit,” Lees said. “You don’t want to be too predictable, to throw other teams around a little bit.”
Asked whether it’s difficult to switch back and forth between the two styles, a left-footed punter who actually punted “four or five” last season with his right foot said, “Sort of, it messes with your mechanics of everything.
“A two-step spiral is very linear; it’s just a straight line. In rugby, I’m sort of rolling out running, and it’s sort of everything just sort of goes every way. Trying to get back to that you’ve got to straighten yourself up.”
Using rubgy-style punts, Lees averaged 39.8 yards a punt as a freshman and landed 18 of his 72 punts inside the 20-yard line with only one touchback. This season, Lees is averaging 39 yards with 14 of 42 punts landing inside the 20, including three of five against the Hoosiers. He has only one touchback this season, too.
“Wade’s really talented,” Maryland coach DJ Durkin said Tuesday. “He can punt the ball a lot of different ways. That’s a weapon for us, just big picture-wise on punt. I think he was probably inconsistent earlier in the year, in terms of the distance and hang time we were getting, no matter what type of punt we were talking about.
“He’s really worked on it — Wade’s a hard worker. He takes great pride in his job. He’s learning our game, American football, more and more, and understanding how much change of field position really plays into a game. It was great to see it, he had a couple good ones for us Saturday.”
Not that he understood exactly what he is doing all the time.
“I just sort of go out there and hit the ball,” Lees said. “But my IQ of football has definitely increased a lot. There’ll be flags being thrown last year and I didn’t know what’s going on. Sometimes now I don’t know what’s going on, but I can pick up a holding call and penalties like that.”
In a late-season game at Nebraska, offensive coordinator Walt Bell actually called on Lees to fake a punt and he wound up throwing a 5-yard completion for a first down to running back Kenny Goins (Gilman) in the second quarter of a 28-7 loss.
Asked whether he tried to get a second chance from Bell, Lees joked: “I was warming up my arm when Max [Bortenschlager] went down at Ohio State to throw me in. Actually I wouldn’t mind running the ball one time. A few of the other Aussie boys have. I’m sort of itching to do that.”
Lees is closer in age to the team’s 33-year-old offensive coordinator than he is to any of his teammates, and being Maryland’s oldest player at age 29 has its privileges.
“It’s great,” Lees said. “I’ve got seniority, I just tell everyone what to do. I’m just me, they’re them. I don’t really tell a difference.”
Neither can Bell. When he was a 23-year-old graduate assistant at Oklahoma State, quarterback Brandon Weeden was a year older.
“Wade has handled that probably as well as any kid I’ve ever been around, being an older guy,” Bell said Wednesday. “He acts just like the other 18- to 21-year-olds. You’d never know.”
Still, the oldest player in the Big Ten and the third oldest in Football Bowl Subdivision is appreciated by his much younger teammates.
“He’s lived a lot of years,” said Funk, who is 19. “It doesn’t seem like a lot, but he’s lived a whole decade more than I have, so there’s some things I've learned from him, picked up from him. He’s a good guy to have in the locker room.”