LSU has developed a new recruiting pipeline – and it’s a mere 9,200 miles long.
Both punters on the roster – Brad Wing and Jamie Keehn – hail from Australia and spent their youths immersed in a different brand of football, Aussie Rules, where the ability to drop-kick the ball on the run is a coveted skill instead of an afterthought. That talent propelled each on his own, unique 9,200-mile path to an eclectic corner of a foreign country where the sport they’ve unwittingly been preparing to play for their whole lives is tantamount to religion.
Wing, now a redshirt sophomore, was first-team All-SEC, a first team All-American and a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award last year. In his second season, he’s added the role of mentor – Keehn is a freshman – to his impressive résumé. And while they’ve both traveled, literally, halfway around the world to do the same job, on the same team, there’s little tension or competitive vitriol between the duo.
Yes, kicking contests are always going to break out in practice, but as Wing works to hold his place as one of the best punters in the nation, Keehn has gladly accepted his role as diligent understudy and heeds the more-experienced Wing’s advice on everything from ball drops to how to simultaneously navigate the rigid structure of Division I football and the relaxed nature of Baton Rouge.
“I’ve just tried to give him pointers that I didn’t get,” Wing said. “I sort of felt like the guinea pig almost when I came over here.”
While they grew up only about two hours apart – Wing in Melbourne and Keehn in the smaller town of Miners Rest – their long journeys to the same destination didn’t run in parallel.
Wing’s father, David, spent time in NFL Europe and briefly punted for the Detroit Lions, so when Wing realized his dreams of a career in Australian Rules Football – the sport he’d played since he was five – were out of his grasp, punting seemed to be a logical alternative. So, without hesitation, he came to America for his senior year of high school to live with family friends in Baton Rouge. He averaged 41.5 net yards per punt at Parkview Baptist High School because of the precise directional kicking ability he honed in Australia and his ability to get nearly five seconds of hang time when the situation called for it. After only one season of football, recruiting websites ranked him among the top punters in the nation and he garnered a scholarship offer from LSU.
Last year, Wing gained national renown in LSU’s 9-6 regular season win against Alabama by getting enough hang time and pinpoint placement on his six punts that Alabama couldn’t muster a single return yard. On the day, four of those punts fell inside the 20 and his longest traveled 73 yards. Last season, opponents only garnered 3.65 yards-per-punt-return against LSU, fourth-best in the nation, and this season Wing stands 13th nationally in yards-per-punt at 44.4. In the SEC, where defenses reign and field position is coveted, such numbers are invaluable to a team. And despite the subtleties of his craft, Wing said that LSU fans, fellow players and the Baton Rouge community have taken notice and embraced him – he’s been quick to do the same.
“It’s very different here,” Wing said. “I always like things a little different, so being in Louisiana I think fits me really well … Baton Rouge, I’ll remember forever.”
For Keehn, the path to Baton Rouge didn’t reveal itself so easily. He grew up with no ties to the sport, but excelled enough at its Australian cousin that he went on to play in a small league for a couple of years after high school. But when he realized he’d gotten he most out of his talents and wouldn’t be able to sustain a professional career, he reached out to a firm called ProKick Australia, which was founded in 2003 by former professional punter and fellow Australian Nathan Chapman. The academy works with kickers and punters who aspire to collegiate or professional football careers in America.
Keehn started working with Chapman in June of 2011, hoping to follow in the footsteps of ProKick alum Alex Dunnachie, who is now in his senior season as Hawaii’s punter, and several others who have gone on to play in college. After less than a year of learning the foreign, yet familiar, craft, ProKick sent tape of Keehn out to schools in the SEC, Pac-12 and Big Ten. LSU was immediately intrigued – due in part to Wing’s success – and, by March, Keehn was invited to visit campus.
Wing hosted Keehn on the trip, taking him out to eat and showing off the town and football facilities. More important, he was there to answer the many questions inherent in being thrust into a new country and a new sport. Though it was a whirlwind trip, Keehn was encouraged to see that a fellow Australian had found the school, the football program and Baton Rouge so hospitable. Though he knew he’d be behind Wing on the depth chart and it might take years to regularly see the field, he gladly accepted LSU’s scholarship offer.
“I spent more time in the airplane than I was actually in the United States; it was a bit crazy,” Keehn said. “But it was good to have his perspective on how things went [over here].”
But there was nothing Wing could say that would offer proper perspective on what it’s like to find yourself in the middle of game day in the South. No words can adequately describe the fervor, the electricity in the air or what it’s like to stand at the bottom of a frenzied bowl with the horde above you attuned to your every move.
“I don’t think anyone can imagine it until you actually get here,” Keehn said. “Alabama a few weeks ago was just the craziest. We were driving in the bus and for about three miles there were just people packed about 20 deep just cheering and tailgating.”
The inexperienced Keehn didn’t have to endure the pressure of playing in that game, but he was given the chance earlier this year to step on the field in front of 90,000 Tiger fans. In the season opener against North Texas, Keehn, not Wing, was asked to punt. On three tries, he averaged 41 yards, including a 51-yarder he relishes and a 34-yarder he chalks up as an important learning experience. And it’s best that he got his early jitters out of the way against the likes of North Texas because when Wing is gone Keehn will be the one punting against Alabama in a game where field position might determine a national champion.
“I try and point things out and correct them just to make him better because I know he’s going to punt here whenever I leave, and I want him to be the best he can,” Wing said. “And he helps me out too. He gives me good competition every now and then … it’s good to have someone there that keeps pushing you and keeps wanting you to improve.”
Wing’s sights are set on the NFL and, given the excellent start, his lifelong goal of being a professional athlete is not far-fetched. When Wing’s time at LSU comes to an end, his countryman, his pupil, his new friend, said he will be ready to step in. And, when that time comes, Tiger fans will have yet another gifted Australian who wandered 9,200 miles into their unique corner of the world to cheer for.
“It’s always good to have someone in front of you that’s had a similar path that you can model from their successes,” Keehn said.
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