Saturday’s injury to incumbent punter Sebastian Riella makes Matt Hayball’s cadence all the more important for the Owls.
Riella injured his knee while blocking on a fake field goal during Saturday’s scrimmage and is expected to miss significant time, thrusting Hayball, a 22-year-old true freshman, into the primary punting role.
“My goal from the outset was to just try to come over and work as hard as I can, the best that I can, to get respect from my teammates and coaches,” Hayball said. “The goal all along was to try to win that job.”
An Australian rules football player since shortly after learning to walk, Hayball made the transition to American football about one year ago. He enrolled in Nathan Champan’s famed Prokick Australia punter school, a kicking program that placed more than 60 Australians on American college football rosters last season.
And these kickers aren’t simply roster placeholders. Tom Hackett and Mitch Wishnowsky from Utah, and Texas’ Michael Dickson – all Prokick alumni – claimed four of the past five Ray Guy Awards, presented to the nation’s top punter.
“I think they do a fantastic job in preparing us to come over and talking us through some challenges we might face,” Hayball said.
Similar to rugby, Aussie rules football features near continuous action. Most kicks happen when players are on the run, without an offensive line blocking in front of the player kicking, and travel end-over-end.
At Prokick, Hayball learned how to kick spirals, increasing both the hang time and length his punts traveled in the air.
“We spend quite a bit of time there learning the techniques and getting comfortable and consistent with those,” Hayball said.
Hayball started following American football nearly a decade ago.
“I’ve always loved watching it,” Hayball said. “I didn’t really know if it was a realistic option until, probably, last year.”
When it came time to choose a college, he liked the idea of playing for coach Lane Kiffin in sunny South Florida. Kiffin admitted earlier in the week that the left-footed Hayball is still a work in progress.
That work includes replacing Riella as the primary holder on place kicks.
“He’s really talented, that’s why I recruited him,” Kiffin said. “You can see that at times.”
Hayball credits Riella with helping him prepare for the mental side of the game, staying calm and not overthinking each punt.
He’ll need all the mental toughness he can muster upon taking the field for his first career college football game, playing in front of nearly 105,000 hostile Ohio St. fans on Aug. 31.
“I’m getting more and more comfortable,” Hayball said. “They’re doing a good job of giving me a lot of opportunities in practice to put me through different scenarios. I’m starting to get comfortable with the guys. I’m starting to get very excited now.”