Inside Carolina/Michael Switzer

UNC's Aussie Addition: Tom Sheldon

The 27-year-old freshman was known for his long kicking in Australian rules football.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina’s summertime secret – the recruitment of Australian rules football player Tom Sheldon – was finally revealed when training camp opened on Friday.  

There have been whispers dating back to the spring of a strong-legged lefty from Down Under, although the mentions lacked a name or other identifiable details. Larry Fedora often prefers to keep items hidden from the public view, and in this particular case, the fifth-year UNC head coach succeeded.

The purpose of such secrecy is likely twofold. One, by keeping Sheldon’s recruitment shielded from the media’s spotlight, UNC was able to limit any potential poachers from the college ranks. There has been a trend in recent years of American football teams taking a chance on the Australian rules football ranks. The sport, also known as Aussie rules and footy, is full contact with an emphasis on kicking as scoring is primarily done by punting a ball through tall goal posts.

The most well-known Aussie rules transplant is New York Giants punter Brad Wing, who played college ball at LSU. Pittsburgh Steelers punter Jordan Berry, who played college ball at Eastern Kentucky, also made the jaunt from Australia. On the college level, punters such as Houston’s Dane Roy and Utah’s Mitch Wishnowsky are part of the growing matriculation from across the Pacific.

The other reason for Fedora’s hush-hush approach was likely one of pride. Pro Kick Australia, a punter recruitment organization endorsed by the NFL, served as the liaison between program and punter. As such, there was no face-to-face meetings between Fedora and Sheldon until the latter arrived at UNC in mid-July.

“It was just a few phone calls and hoping that when he got here I wasn’t going to get catfished,” Fedora said on Saturday. “It was basically over the Internet and over the telephone. I never saw Tom in person, so I was hoping when he got here that he really was a real person that could punt the ball.” Sheldon is in fact a real person. The 6-foot-1 lefty is from Echuca, Victoria, a small town of about 14,000 located in southeast Australia, about 130 miles north of Melbourne.

He’s 27 years old, and has thrived in the Australian rules football ranks. He’s most recently played backman for the Kyabram Bombers, drawing praise from the local Shepparton News for his “exquisite long kicking.”

Sheldon’s the nephew of esteemed Australian rules footballer Ken Sheldon, who kicked the winning goal for Carlton Football Club in the 1979 Victorian Football League championship. He’s the oldest of three siblings. His sister, Chloe, is 24, and his brother, Jack, is 20. The brothers decided earlier this year to make the jump together from Australian rules football to American football. Jack is enrolling at Central Michigan to kick for the Chippewas.

Sheldon made his decision to enroll at North Carolina back in the spring.

“I have been playing at Kyabram for the past few years but this opportunity is one that’s just too good to miss,” Sheldon told The Riverine Herald in May. “And they didn’t want us playing this year because they didn’t want to see us get any injuries that would set back our introduction to the program there.”

Sheldon told the paper he planned to pursue a combined engineering/business degree in Chapel Hill. UNC has yet to make him available for interviews.

UNC senior placekicker Nick Weiler, who is rooming with Sheldon during training camp, described the Aussie as mature and level-headed.

“I call him the old, wise grandfather, the kind that’s off his rocker that needs to be carried around all of the time,” Weiler said. “We look out for him, but he’s definitely got more life experience than all of us, so it’s good learning from each other.”

After Saturday morning’s practice, Fedora walked by the cold tubs where the specialists were taking a dip and asked the newcomer how things were going. Sheldon replied in a heavy Australian accent, saying, “Yeah, mate, I’m keeping all of these young guys in check.”

Fedora’s not one to shy away from taking chances, although he admitted this was the first time he has ever recruited a player that has never played the game.

“He’s got a lot to learn about the game,” Fedora said. “I think the skill set is there, but there’s still a lot for him to learn just about the game of football and all of the nuances that will come up if he is the punter. We’ve got to make sure he’s totally prepared before we put him on the field.”

Fedora said Sheldon doesn’t have to understand offense or defense, but he does have to nail down the punt game semantics. It’s not just about punting the football. It’s about how to react if he drops a snap or notices a misaligned protection.

Sheldon’s traditional style of kick is end-over-end, similar to a kickoff, according to Weiler, although he’s learned how to kick the spiral ball that is typical of American football punters. Weiler told reporters Sheldon and incumbent Joey Mangili were both consistently booming 45-50 yard punts with 4-to-5 second hang times in practice on Friday.

“He and Joey had an awesome duel,” Weiler said. “So that competition is going to be great. They’re both great punters, so whoever the coaching staff goes with we’re going to be successful with.”

Sophomores Hunter Lent and Corbin Daly both punted during games last season for the Tar Heels, although neither are currently listed on the 105-man training camp roster.


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