The first college football game Blake Hayes attended was also the first one he played in.

Hayes, a freshman from Melbourne, Australia, debuted as Illinois' punter during the season opener Sept. 2 against Ball State.

"It was pretty surreal," Hayes said. "I've been dreaming about it for a few years. I would see it on TV.

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"But to see the professionalism of all the coaches and players, running out of the tunnel and the smoke clears, it's crazy. It can only be experienced in person. It takes your breath away."

Hayes takes his first road trip with the Illini when they face No. 22 South Florida on Friday night at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

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Hayes, 19, has been reliable through his first two games. Against Western Kentucky, with less than two minutes left in the first half and the Illini leading 6-0, he pinned the Hilltoppers on their 4-yard line.

"Blake Hayes has impressed," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. "He made some big plays. He has a strong leg. He's calm. He's a confident player. We're going to call on him a lot."

The Illini identified Hayes through ProKick Australia Academy, which has produced a recent multitude of college kickers and punters. According to its website, Prokick Australia was established in 2006 "to facilitate in the transition of aspiring kickers and punters to the grand stage of American football, and to help further their education or desire to play professionally in the USA or Canada."

The training academy transforms Australian rules football players into American football players.

The winners of the last four Ray Guy Awards as the top college punter were Australian: Memphis' Tom Hornsey (2013), Utah's Tom Hackett (2014 and 2015) and Utah's Mitch Wishnowsky (2016). All three finalists last season, including Ohio State's Cameron Johnston and Texas' Michael Dickson, were from ProKick Australia.

Hayes said he started watching the NFL four years ago. A few games are shown weekly in Australia, he said, although the fan base isn't massive.

A teacher put him in touch with a punting coach from ProKick Australia, which he joined during his junior year of high school.

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"They taught me basically the rules, the art of punting, and facilitated me coming over (to the U.S.)," Hayes said.

Hayes said he is stunned by the intense recruiting process many of his Illini teammates endured. He said ProKick Australia typically handles players' recruitment.

"Our coaches try not to tell us a huge amount on what schools are interested," he said. "It can boost confidence (too much) and we get ahead of ourselves.

"Coaches can't see us in person. Basically when a coach starts speaking to my coach first, and then once they display genuine interest, they'll call the player. I think it's a good thing. I don't know how these guys do it with multiple offers. I think it keeps us level-headed."

Hayes said he's proud to be part of a new tradition in college football.

"We're starting to ... change the art of punting, in terms of the rugby kick," he said. "(Teams are) starting to realize we have been successful. I have the privilege to be here but also the right to represent my country and help bring new Aussies across, I'm hoping."

Hayes said he's adjusting to life in America. All he knew about Illinois before he learned of the school was that Chicago is in the state. He quickly researched and was impressed with the university's academics.

He also has been surprised by American food portions. He's looking forward to seeing snow for the first time.

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His dad plans to visit Champaign for the Wisconsin game on Oct. 28, and the rest of his family will travel to take in the last two games, Nov. 18 at Ohio State and Nov. 25 at home against Northwestern.

His friends and family in Australia have become devoted Illini followers. They had an overnight party to watch the Ball State game that lasted from about 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.

"They follow closely," he said. "I don't know how much of the rules they know, but they love seeing me out there."

As for his accent, he said, that has been helpful in making friends in Champaign.

"It gets a good conversation going," he said.

This article is written by Shannon Ryan from Chicago Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.