James Evans has a boot so prodigious it has taken him all the way to Indiana, and a scholarship to punt in college football’s Big 10 division for the Hoosiers.
The 19-year-old former student at Auckland’s Sacred Heart College has never played American football before but has always had a big leg on him, so much so that some junior coaches recommended he try out as a punter.
The pursuit of punting got serious last July when he travelled to Melbourne for a try out with the ProKick academy.
It clearly went well because he was back in the Victorian capital for two and half months over summer honing his craft and trying on equipment including a 2kg helmet for the first time.
“That was definitely a huge adjustment, the first time wearing it I was thinking man is this me? It took a bit of getting used to,” he said.
It was there that he was filmed kicking, with the video sent off to colleges in the US. The video saw Indiana come calling.
Part of Evans’ appeal for the Hoosiers is also the 19-year-old’s ability to take kick offs, off the tee, which he can kick 60 to 70m.
“They want me to compete for the starting job as both a punter and kick-off specialist,” he said.
Evans is the first New Zealand product of ProKick, which has helped numerous predominately Aussie Rules kicking talents secure college scholarships.
“It’s a massive difference (between rugby and American football), it’s so much more technical, rugby balls are more so designed to be kicked whereas footballs are made to be thrown so they’re leather balls, a bit smaller as well so the sweet spot is harder to find,” Evans said.
“It’s a lot of technique work we do in Australia to make sure we’re consistent with our hang time.”
“It’s also a different style of punting, for the most part I’ll be doing spirals with an American football versus a rugby ball where it’s mostly drop punts.”
Several ProKick graduates have even gone on to the NFL including Seattle’s drop-kicking All Pro Michael Dickson and 49ers punter Mitch Wishnowski, who was born and raised in Perth by Kiwi parents.
Evans’s most prodigious punt is 70 plus metres but punting in a game is about control as much power, with hang time a key element.
“What I’m aiming for is a 45-yard, 4.5 (seconds of hang time) punt,” he said.
“The biggest punt I’ve hit on film is 5.8 seconds of hang time, really in a game you’re looking to be consistent with hitting like a 4.5 second so gunners (chasers) can get down field and cover the kick.”
Directional punts are also used to hem in the returners, who often have the speed of Olympic sprinters.
If they were to find some open space, the strongly built 19-year-old, having grown up playing rugby, is willing and able to tackle if returners were to get away from his teammates.
“I had a joke with some of the coaches, if it comes to it I’ve played rugby, they’re like mate you can come in and teach the guys form tackling,” he said.
“If it comes to it, I would be happy to make a tackle.”
He will head to Bloomington, an hour from Indianapolis, in January to hopefully study business and play in his freshman season in September 2021.
“I finished high school last year so I’ll have a full four years of eligibility,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are, I’ve got mates who are 27 doing what I’m doing, as long as you haven’t been to university, if there is anyone in New Zealand, it doesn’t matter how old you are, if you haven’t been to university, you could pursue this.”
“Something that really stood out about Indiana, the business school is really highly ranked, that’s something I want to pursue and major in.”
As far as the football goes, what awaits is on a scale Evans is struggling to comprehend.
Indiana’s Memorial Stadium is bigger than Eden Park and three divisional rivals having stadiums with capacities of over 100,000, including Michigan with the aptly named 107,000-seat ‘Big House’.
“It’s exciting though, every stadium in the Big 10 except for two, there are 14 schools, have stadiums bigger than Eden Park, it’s crazy to think about but I guess that’s the scale of things over there,” he said.
“I think there are three schools in the division with stadiums over 100,000 capacity, Memorial is 52, 53000, it’s pretty crazy but I’m looking forward to playing there.”