Sam Irwin-Hill: Change in Plans

Arkansas punter Sam Irwin-Hill thought he was destined to be a Australian Rules football star, but he's retooled his goals for American football.

Sam Irwin-Hill couldn't believe it. After working toward one goal his entire life, he watched as 79 players were selected in the 2008 Australian Football League Draft.

He never heard his name called.

"That was really hard for him," said Susanne Hill, Irwin-Hill's mother. "That was the first time he ever felt any hardship in sports. He got really disappointed in himself."

Not being picked in the AFL Draft set in motion Irwin-Hill's journey that included stops as a construction worker in Australia, a junior college All-American in San Francisco and finally the No. 1 punter in Fayetteville.

The journey was not smooth, though, as the ambidextrous punter encountered several obstacles on his path to the United States.

Susanne Hill has a home video of her son kicking a soccer ball around the yard when he was around two years old. In the video, Irwin-Hill told his mother, "I'm going to kick it high in the sky."

Since then, that is just what he has done.

He started practicing Australian rules football with his father, David Irwin, and when he was old enough, he would go to the park every day and practice by himself. It was during these sessions that Irwin-Hill learned and perfected the ability to kick with both legs.

"From a very young age, my dad taught me how to kick," Irwin-Hill said. "He didn't force me, but he said that if I wanted to play Australian rules, I have to kick left and right foot."

When he was 9, he joined the Eaglehawk Football Club. Irwin-Hill played in the Eaglehawk organization until he earned a spot on the Bendigo Pioneers, a member of the TAC Cup.

The TAC Cup is one of several leagues from which the AFL, the professional Australian rules football league, drafts players from. It is similar to the college football and NFL system in the U.S., but players in the TAC Cup are still in high school.

Irwin-Hill played five seasons in the TAC Cup, which is equivalent to the SEC. In the last five AFL Drafts, 182 TAC Cup players have been picked. The next closest league has had only 67.

However, when he turned 18 and became eligible for the draft, Irwin-Hill was passed over. He instead signed with the Williamstown Seagulls in the Victorian Football League, a minor league similar to the NBA's Developmental League in the U.S.

After a year with the Seagulls, he wasn't called up to the AFL's Western Bulldogs. He was tired of the system, his mother said, and he quit.

"He went through a year of depression after missing out on the AFL," Hill said. "He pulled out of university and went and got a job."

Irwin-Hill had a couple of jobs after quitting Australian rules football, including working as a laborer for a construction company. It was while working these various jobs that Nathan Chapman approached him about playing American football.

"He came over to me and said, ‘You have the potential to play at a Division I level,'" Irwin-Hill said. "I didn't look at it at first, but he said ‘I'm being serious.' So I went in and had a couple kicks around. One thing led to another."

Chapman founded ProKick Australia in 2006 to facilitate in the transition of aspiring kickers and punters to the grand stage of American football, according to its website.

With ProKick Australia, Irwin-Hill learned how to punt an American football, as well as kick field goals and kickoff. The experience helped bring him out of his depression, his mother said.

"He was able to devote all of his time to training with the new game," Hill said. "He let go of all things. That's what Sam's good at – he can focus."

After just a year with the organization, he had a scholarship offer from Alabama.

With an offer from the Crimson Tide on the table, Irwin-Hill decided he wanted to become the fourth player from the ProKick academy to leave Australia and play college football in America.

The news that he would be traveling across the Pacific Ocean shocked his parents at first, but it eventually grew on them.

"They were very happy for me," Irwin-Hill said. "I've always been a guy to look outside of the box and my parents are definitely aware of that. They're full on behind me and give me all the credit."

Because of the different education systems in Australia and the U.S., Irwin-Hill wasn't academically eligible and couldn't take the scholarship offer from Alabama.

At that point, Chapman told him that he would probably have to go to a junior college. That's when Irwin-Hill found George Rush, the head coach at City College of San Francisco.

The recruiting process was done via email and phone calls and in 2011, Irwin-Hill came to CCSF to play for the Rams.

As a member of the California Community College Athletic Association, CCSF couldn't offer Irwin-Hill an athletic scholarship, meaning his parents had to take on the financial burden.

On top of the pressure from the money his parents were spending, Irwin-Hill was also a 15-hour flight away from family and friends and had to adjust to a new culture. That included new foods and ways of getting around.

"For a start, driving on the other side of the car is difficult," Irwin-Hill said, "let alone driving on the other side of the road."

The investment paid off as the Rams went 12-0 in Irwin-Hill's freshman year and won the CCCAA Championship. The next year, CCSF went 10-2 and lost in the CCCAA championship game.

Irwin-Hill's athleticism and ability to punt with both legs prompted Rush to install a special package for him.

"He fit our team like a glove," Rush said. "He was a great kickoff man with a terrific leg. He worked hard, lifted, ran and was a tough guy. He even made some tackles."

Accolades started rolling in after his sophomore season. He was named a first-team All-American and rated the No. 1 junior college punter in the country by Miami (FL), Louisiana Tech and Utah State offered him scholarships.

During his freshman season, though, the Australian punter caught the eye of then Arkansas graduate assistant Terrance Butler.

Despite Butler's departure and a slew of other coaching changes, Arkansas stayed interested and after a trip home for Christmas in 2012, Irwin-Hill decided to sign with the Razorbacks.

"That's the main reason he came to Arkansas," said Susanne Hill, Irwin-Hill's mother. "It was a waiting game to see if the new coaches felt the same, but they were loyal."

At the beginning of his first year in the SEC, Irwin-Hill split time with Zach Hocker as the Razorbacks' punter, but by the fifth game of the season, he won the full-time job.

While Arkansas struggled to a 3-9 season, he averaged 44.3 yards per punt and led the SEC with 20 punts downed inside the 20-yard line.

In the LSU game, Irwin-Hill pinned the Tigers on the 1-yard line with a little more than three minutes left on the clock and Arkansas ahead 27-24. While LSU ended up driving 99 yards for the game-winning touchdown, the punt put the Razorbacks in the best position possible.

Rory Segrest, in his first year as the special teams coordinator at Arkansas, is impressed by his stats, but believes Irwin-Hill can be even better in 2014 if he improves his consistency.

"He's got the leg, we just want to get him to be more consistent and he's done that this spring," Segrest said. "We know he can do some things with both legs in a rugby style, but we'd like him to work on just being consistent with the conventional style right now."

In the spring game, Irwin-Hill punted three times for an average of 55.3 yards. An 85-yard punt that sailed over the punt returner's head and bounced into the end zone inflated the average, but Segrest said he still sees improvement.

He was named a Ray Guy Award candidate last year, so more consistency would likely lead to more postseason honors. Irwin-Hill's main concern, however, is helping the Razorbacks' snap the longest losing streak in school history.

"There's a lot of things I have to improve on," Irwin-Hill said. "I think I did my job for the team [last season], but I have to put that behind me."

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