Going the distance: Big Ten boasts some of nation's top punters

Tom Canavan
Associated Press

Piscataway, N.J. — The Big Ten Conference knows the value of having good punters, and it is willing to go a long way to get them.

The league has four of the nation’s top 23 punters after last weekend’s games: Michael Sleep-Dalton of Iowa (46.4 yard average), Adam Korsak of Rutgers (46.4), Isaac Armstrong of Nebraska (45.7) and Blake Hayes of Illinois (45.1).

Hayden Whitehead of Indiana (42.2) makes it five of the top 43, and that list doesn’t include Jake Hartbarger (45.9) of Michigan State, Will Hart (44.5) of Michigan and Drue Chrisman (43.6) of Ohio State. They don’t qualify because they have not averaged 3.6 punts yet.

While it’s a lot of names, distance is the story here — in every way.

Sleep-Dalton, Korsak, Hayes and Whitehead are all former Australian rules football players. They grew up in the land down under before training with former NFL punter Nathan Chapman and former NFL kicker John Smith at ProKick Australia and coming to the U.S.

“The Big Ten is a very strong punting league and just the style play in the league, they just emphasize punting and the numbers sort of speak to strong punting teams in terms of net average and stuff like that,” said Korsak, who is ranked No. 16 nationally, one spot behind Sleep-Delton.

The Big Ten leads the Power Five conferences in percentage of punts inside the 20-yard line: Big Ten, 43.5 percent; SEC, 42.8; Pac-12, 35.7; Big 12, 33.6 and the ACC, 31.8.

The national rate, including the Group of Five conferences, is 33.8 percent.

Korsak put on a punting exhibition against No. 20 Iowa on Sept. 7. Named the Ray Guy Award Punter of the Week, he averaged 47.6 yards on 10 attempts, finishing with a net of 46.5. The labor studies and employments relations major had seven punts downed inside the 20, including five inside the 10 and four inside the 5. The longest was a 69-yarder, tied for the seventh-longest in program history, that settled at the 1. So far, he has put 7 of 11 punts inside the 20 this season.

Rutgers punter Adam Korsak is a former Australian rules football player who trained at ProKick Australia before coming to the United States.

Hayes has dropped 7 of 15 inside the 20; Chrisman 6 of 10; Blake Gillikin of Penn State 9 of 13; and Armstrong, 8 of 14.

Senior Anthony Lotti of Wisconsin, the No.1 ranked defense, has put 67 of his 146 career punts inside the 20.

The Big Ten led Power Five conferences in 2018 with 35 percent of punts downed inside the 20-yard line.

The Aussies are fun the watch punt. They can punt either the traditional American way of a step or two and punt or the Aussies rules way: The punter take the snap and rolls out a couple of steps before punting. Korsak calls that “artificial hang time,” which gives the gunners more time to get downfield for coverage.

The other thing to realize about the punters is that they are a little out of the box.

Gillikin is pushing for a 4.0 GPA, has a job shadowing opportunity with Penn State Health Sports Medicine and would like to become a doctor. He’d even like to overlap medical school and an NFL career.

Chrisman proposed to his girlfriend on the field at the Buckeyes spring game.

Hartbarger is back for a sixth season of eligibility after the NCAA gave him an extra year after a leg injury early in 2018 ended his season.

Sleep-Dalton, who is from Geelong unlike his Melbourne mates, is a graduate transfer from Arizona State. Before moving to San Francisco, he worked four years as an electrician in Australia, so he is a little older, turning 27 this month. He can punt with either foot, but is a righty.

And that’s just part of the group.

“My dad always got me involved into American sports,” Korsak said. “My first memories of American football was Madden ‘06, with Donovan McNabb on the cover. I played Madden and that’s the way I sort of knew the rules and knew some of the players back then.”

Watching football films followed.

“I just developed a love for American sports and the college system from an early age,” he said. “It was until roughly three years ago when I was 17, 18, 19, I thought it would come to fruition. But I was always interested into American football.”

The Big Ten is reaping the benefits. So is college football.

Five of the last six winners of the Ray Guy Award, given to the nation’s top punter, attended ProKick in Melboune, the last two being NFL punters Mitch Wishnowsky of the 49ers and Michael Dickson of the Seahawks. Braden Mann of Texas A&M broke the streak last season.