During the two seasons that Maryland head coach D.J. Durkin was at Michigan, he had first-hand experience with an Australian punter. Senior Blake O’Neill, aside from a much-publicized debacle that cost the Wolverines a victory against Michigan State, has been one of the best booters in the Big Ten the last two years. So well regarded was O’Neill (among the Michigan staff at least) that head coach Jim Harbaugh attempted to dip back into Australia for yet another potential special teams standout.
That punter was Wade Lees, an estranged 27-year-old, who -- after purchasing (but never receiving) a banned substance and a subsequent unsuccessful attempt at rejuvenating his career in the Australian Football League (that continent’s NFL) -- sought to try his talents in the United States. Unfortunately for Lees, Harbaugh couldn’t find a scholarship for him after a couple upperclassmen Wolverines decided to stick around Ann Arbor, Mich., for another year.
“My academic pathway was not as simple as other who have come across from Australia, and I had to be on campus by January as an early enrollee. But that wasn’t going to be possible at Michigan, so I was out of luck there,” said Lees, who is currently enrolled at Australia’s Deakin University and studying business sports management. “But Coach Durkin obviously came from Michigan and knew I was speaking to them. So when he got to Maryland, well, he knew how much of a great job Blake O'Neill had done for Michigan this year. So at Maryland he got out on the front foot, got in contact with my coaches, and started recruiting me.”
By the second week of December, Lees had a full scholarship from the Terps. And not seven days later, the Aussie punter was on the Maryland bandwagon.
“I just want to thank Coach Durkin for remembering me and continuing to recruit me. Now I will be looking to get to Maryland and working really hard to win the respect of all my new teammates, and help turn this great school into a successful team,” said Lees, who had also been hearing from Clemson and North Carolina, in addition to UM and UMD. “But this for me is just the beginning. The hard work has just begun. This year I was working a full-time job while studying and playing Australian Football. Then I was training with my [American] punting coach too, so my schedule was really busy. But I am not one to shy away from hard work, and I will continue to work hard at my craft in the U.S.”
Lees will be following in fellow countryman Brad Craddock’s footsteps. Craddock, of course, had a stellar career as a kicker in College Park, Md., claiming the Lou Groza Award during his junior campaign. He was considered the No. 1 kicker in the Big Ten the last two years.
“I have heard of Brad Craddock and was aware of the fantastic things he did for Maryland,” said Lees, who only punts and has never kicked before. “He reached out to me on Twitter after I committed, but I didn’t really know him personally. But I would love to have a career there like he did.”
The 6-foot-2, 203-pound Lees has been preparing for that opportunity in earnest for more than two years.
Ever since 2012, when the Australian Football League handed him an 18-month ban for purchasing (but never receiving) a U.S.-purchased fat-burning supplement that had traces of illegal steroids (he was attempting to recover from an injury), Lees’ AFL aspirations have been on life support. The VFL, which is akin to a minor league, gave him several opportunities to revert to form after his return, but Lees admittedly struggled. He said the year-and-a-half layoff took its toll physically and mentally, and he soon realized the AFL wasn’t going to come calling anytime soon.
The United States was his best shot at revitalizing his career.
“I came on a visit to America in June and visited a few of my good mates like Tom Hackett at Utah and Blake O'Neill at Michigan,” Lees said. “That was my first time in the United States and I loved it, and loved what they were telling me. And when I saw the system and how they did things in U.S. colleges, I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
By that time, he had already begun working with Nathan Chapman’s ProKick Australia, a renowned U.S.-training ground for aspiring American kickers/punters. Chapman has sent more than 50 Aussies to the United States on full scholarship, several of whom are now in the NFL.
“ProKick has developed me a lot. The program is structured in order to simulate exactly how sessions are in college in the U.S,” Lees said. “We have three weight sessions per week and practice kicking four days a week. We practice distance kicking, pinning inside the 20 [yard line], directional punting -- everything. Nathan is a master at what he does as you can see by the quality of players he has produced in Tom Hackett at Utah; Blake O'Neill at Michigan; Jamie Keehn at LSU; Jordan Berry of the Pittsburg Steelers; Chris Tilby at USC; and Cam Johnston at Ohio State just to name a few.”
After months and months of rigorous sessions, Lees is now at the point where he can send an American football 45-50 yards with a hangtime of around 4.5 seconds. To boot (pun intended), he can run a little too and is hoping Durkin will call a few fake punts when he arrives in College Park.
“The biggest challenge from kicking the Australian football to the American football is the Aussie football is a bigger ball and we kick what we call a drop punt all the time rather than a spiral,” said Lees, who will be at UMD Jan. 10 and said he’ll have four years of eligibility. “But I’m to the point now where I feel really comfortable kicking the Aussie drop punt or a spiral; it does not really matter.”
Lees has actually been punting for more than three-quarters of his 28 years. His father played in the VFL, and as soon as Wade was physically able, good ‘ol dad reared his son in the ways of the Aussie drop punt.
“I have not always been the most gifted athlete,” Lees said. “But it’s just been my sheer work ethic and determination that has gotten me to where I am today. I played football with Cam Johnston in Australia, and I saw him make the transition. I followed how he adapted to the game. He has been very good and hopefully I can be the player he has become.”
If Lees reaches his potential, he believes he will be given a chance to play professionally in North America (NFL or CFL). But he didn’t want to think that far ahead with his Maryland career just about to begin.
“As far as after college, I think everyone strives to play at the next level,” Lees said. “But for now I’m not worrying about that; I’m just looking forward to getting over there, getting into my training, and helping Maryland.”