Before Michigan punter Blake O’Neill ever considered playing American football, he was a fashion model in Melbourne, Australia.
“I was a little budding Zoolander,” O’Neill said Monday.
His modeling in fashion magazines and other publications provided a way to make some extra money while he completed his undergraduate degree in his native country.
At no point during his modeling career did O’Neill ever expect that he’d one day punt for the Michigan football team.
As many football careers begin, O’Neill first became familiar with the sport when he was a little kid, playing with his dad. But O’Neill and his father played Australian rules football.
O’Neill’s father had played the sport locally, so naturally, O’Neill did too. Describing Australian rules football in simple terms that an American would understand, with its many kicks and near-constant action, is difficult even for a seasoned player.
“If you were to combine rugby and soccer, and then you pass with your feet, maybe that’s getting close,” O’Neill said.
In Australian rules football, O’Neill’s role was different from what it is in American football. Because the ball is moved with kicks and not through passing, O’Neill played a position called halfback, which entailed attempting to spread the defense and creating misdirection to give his teammates an advantage.
His decision to pursue American football came after he finished his undergraduate degree and decided it would be a good way to see the U.S. and add on to his education. He decided to attend ProKick Australia, an academy that helps Australian football players transform into American football punters in the hopes of earning college scholarships. O’Neill estimated that it normally takes about six months to make the transition for a punter from Australian rules football to American football.
O’Neill believes the Australian style of punting has its advantages. He kicks the ball at an angle, making adjustments depending on the situation, as opposed to the typical American punter who dropkicks the ball in a repetitive motion every single kick.
“Traditional punting, as great as it is, it really is one thing, and it’s high and long and then you have to cover down there,” O’Neill said. “Where if you can change the launch point, you can change the block point, you can change where your guys are covering, it really makes it tough to scheme for another team.”
The advantages were appealing to Weber State coach Jay Hill, who had success as Utah’s special teams coordinator with Utes punter Tom Hackett. Hill recruited O’Neill to Weber State out of ProKick Australia, and the move paid off. In his one season with the Wildcats, O’Neill finished sixth in the Football Championship Subdivision in punting.
This offseason, O’Neill jumped at the chance to complete his second year as a graduate student at Michigan. At times, he is in awe of the impact of college football in the United States, especially when he saw the magnitude of 109,651 people in Michigan Stadium on Saturday.
He is not alone in his journey. The Wolverines’ schedule is fraught with opponents who have Australian punters who attended ProKick and worked with O’Neill. Utah, Oregon State, Rutgers, Penn State and Ohio State all have Australian punters who O’Neill is familiar with.
“We’re all good mates,” he said.
The exception among Australian college football special teamers, O’Neill noted, is Maryland kicker Brad Craddock, last year’s Lou Groza Award winner for college football’s top kicker. Craddock did not train at ProKick, and O’Neill and Craddock have never met.
The bond between the Australian punters has been apparent on the field during the first two games of Michigan’s season. O’Neill was the last Wolverine on the field after the season opener at Utah, delayed as he greeted Hackett after the game. This week, O’Neill said he felt for his friend and Oregon State punter Nick Porebski as he took the roughing the kicker penalty that Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh vehemently argued. (O’Neill agreed with Harbaugh that the penalty should not have been called and that Porebski was out of the pocket.)
For now, O’Neill is enjoying his final year of his college football career. Sure, his teammates occasionally have pictures of his modeling career in the locker room, but he doesn’t seem to mind. O’Neill has punted six times in Michigan’s first two games for an average of 42.8 yards. Two of his punts have pinned the Wolverines’ opponent inside its own 20-yard line.
O’Neill is working toward his master’s degree in sport management, and said he would love to punt in the NFL, though he acknowledges there are just 32 jobs. If worst comes to worst, he can always take a page out of Zoolander’s book.
“The Blake O’Neill School for Kids Who Can’t Punt Good” has a certain ring to it.