How Fedora found the punter from down under

Australian Tom Sheldon learning American football in Tar Heels camp

Jeremy Brevard—USA TODAY Sports
North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Larry Fedora speaks to the media during the ACC Football Kickoff at Westin Charlotte

Larry Fedora is happy with his newest punter, for the most part.”He looks good,” the UNC head coach said. “Just got to get the cigarette hanging out of his mouth — got to get that out.”Fedora quickly points out that he was just joking, and comparing UNC’s Australian punter Tom Sheldon to Nigel Gruff, the Welsh kicker in the movie The Replacements.In reality, Fedora isn’t even sure if Sheldon smokes.”I don’t know anything about him,” Fedora said. “I don’t know his story, what he’s been through. I’m still getting to know him.”Sheldon’s arrival at UNC is almost a Hollywood story in itself. He arrived at Carolina as a 27-year-old freshman and longtime veteran of Australian rules football. Sheldon has also never seen, let alone played in a live American football game.”You take for granted that when a guy gets here, he knows the game,” Fedora said. “Tom doesn’t. I’ve never had anything like this. I’ve never had anybody who hasn’t played the game.”Sheldon’s journey to UNC is part of a recent trend in college football. Many of the top punters in the game are imports from the Aussie game. The last three Ray Guy Awards, given to the nation’s top punter, have all gone to native Australians—the last two to Utah’s Tom Hackett, and the one prior to Tom Hornsey of Memphis. Wake Forest is looking to replace Alexander Kinal, an Australian who was one of the ACC’s best punters for the last four seasons.Four teams in the Big Ten’s East division had Australian punters on the roster last season. Sheldon’s younger brother, Jack, is a freshman at Central Michigan this year. All-told, more than five dozen Australians have punted for a U.S. college in recent years, many moving on to the NFL.Virtually all of the talent from Down Under has arrived courtesy of Pro Kick Australia, a company that is part skills academy, part recruiting service and part online matchmaker.Created by Australian Nathan Chapman, a former punter for the Green Bay Packers, Pro Kick takes advantage of the one skill that gives footy (the term natives use for Australian rules) players an advantage in the states.The footy field is much larger, and kicking is a key method of moving the ball down field and scoring. Everyone on an Australian roster is expected to be able to get off a booming punt, often on the run, in traffic.”We grow up playing the game from so young,” Chapman said. “I think we are really comfortable in ourselves to be able to kick the ball downfield and to be able to place it where we want it.””Preferably, inside the five (yard line), right?” he added.North Carolina struggled with its punting last year, trying out three different players at the position and producing a net average of just 35.87 yards, ranking second-to-last in the ACC and 95th nationally. The Heels also had two punts blocked.Something needed to change in Chapel Hill, and, from half a world away, Chapman offered a solution.”We actually targeted Tom for UNC,” Chapman said.Fedora spoke to coaches that have worked with Pro Kick in the past and decided to test the waters.”They started putting guys in front of us that they thought could play here at UNC,” he said. “That’s how I first found out about Tom, and then it was a few phone calls. I was hoping that when he got here I wasn’t going to get catfished, because, basically, it was all over the internet and telephone. I never saw Tom in person. So I was hoping that when he got here he really was a real person.”Once it was clear he wasn’t being catfshed, Fedora was ready to see this foreign prospect punt.”Fedora was great,” Chapman said. “He jumped right in and said, ‘Yep. Let’s get this done.’ From there, it’s been pretty funny communicating with him. I know how anxious he was to see Tom kick for the first time, but now I can joke with Coach and say, ‘Told ya not to stress.'”Of course, the Australians have a different way to word that message.”No worries, mate,” Fedora said. “He calls me mate, and that’s what he says to everything we put in front of him. ‘No worries, mate.'”Fedora and the Carolina coaches have put plenty in front of him in camp so far.”He’s got a lot to learn about the game,” he said. “I think the skill set’s there. But there’s still a lot for him to learn just about the game and all the nuances that come up as the punter. We ve got to make sure he’s totally prepared before we put him on the field.”The staff isn’t bothering to explain offense and defense, yet. They’re just prepping him on everything that can happen during a punt.”We’re showing him film, showing him things that have happened in games,” Fedora said. “He’s an intelligent person, and you want to really cover everything. Don’t take anything for granted. So we show him things that aren’t normal. If you drop a snap, here’s how you have to react.”From experience, Chapman said that the speed of the game will be the biggest adjustment for his pupil. “The skills are all set, ready to go,” he said, “but we must adapt to getting it all done at the speed of the team. You can never simulate game speed. It’s always another level.”Still, Chapman’s intensive program comes as close as possible to getting his players college ready. Players get up at 6 a.m. each day to train. The program includes six days of weight lifting, including some two-a-day weight room sessions. There’s also running and what Chapman calls “football sessions”, which are a combination of classroom and field work to try to understand what they’ll be doing.”It’s pretty busy,” he said. “We train for about 14 months from start to finish. I hope they enjoy it, but I’m sure they wonder why we train so hard just to kick a ball.”Despite being as much as a decade older than his teammates —”He’s like their father,” Fedora joked — Sheldon has blended in with his teammates. “They love him,” Fedora said. “The accent alone — he was way ahead of the game.”Chapman promises that, once the games start, Tar Heel fans will also appreciate their new punter from down under.”He will change your punt game like you haven’t seen,” he said. “HE has a super strong left leg and incredible touch on the short-field kicks. All in all, I expect a 48-yard average with everything fair caught.””He might even have a chance to throw one on his right foot, if he gets cheeky,” Chapman added.In the meantime, Sheldon is battling incumbent punter Joey Mangili and getting acquainted with American football culture.”We had a women’s clinic the other day,” Fedora said. “Ryan Switzer was talking to them about what it’s like to return a punt. Then the next man to speak was Tom. They asked him, ‘What’s it like to punt to a really good return guy like Ryan Switzer?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.'””We’ll see how far we can go with it,” Fedora said.