Wade Lees was a 27-year-old construction worker in Melbourne, Australia, when Maryland football coach DJ Durkin called to offer him the Terps’ starting punter role.
Lees, who played Australian-rules football for about 14 years, spent the previous year digging holes to help his brother-in-law build houses. A college football roster spot sounded more fulfilling. Lees didn’t hesitate to join Maryland, following the path many of his countrymen had already taken.
With a variety of punting techniques he learned from his home country, Lees has acclimated to the American game. He helped Maryland clinch its 42-39 win over Indiana this past weekend, launching a kick to the one-yard line with two minutes remaining.
Though the Terps hope their offense avoids punting situations Saturday at Rutgers, they trust the sophomore to deliver if called upon.
“Wade’s really talented,” Durkin said. “He’s learning our game, American football, more and more, and understanding how much change of field position really plays into a game. It was great to see it, he had a couple good ones for us Saturday.”
Lees didn’t understand the basics of college football before his debut 2016 season. Simple penalties, such as holding, confused him. He didn’t know he was supposed to dive on top of the ball if it was snapped over his head.
In-game experience has helped him adjust, however, and his relationship with other Australians playing college football has provided additional assurance.
Lees estimates there are about 35 Australians in the U.S. trying to establish punting careers. Most of them trained under Nathan Chapman, the head of the Prokick Australia program and “godfather” of Australian punting.
Fifteen of those players are in a Facebook group with Lees called “The Banter Page,” where they discuss their lives and heckle each other over poor performances. If someone isn’t supplying enough banter, Lees said, they’re removed from the group.
Members include North Carolina’s Tom Sheldon, Central Michigan’s Jack Sheldon and Indiana’s Haydon Whitehead, who is nicknamed “Dexter” for his resemblance to the TV show character.
While the size of the group fluctuates, Lees, a founding member of the club, feels secure.
“If anyone gets rid of me,” Lees said, “they’d be in a bit of trouble.”
That type of humor has endeared Lees to his Maryland teammates, who say he fits into the locker room despite being older than the rest of the squad. Lees enjoys his lighthearted role, but he also provides life advice to younger players.
“He’s lived a lot of years,” running back Jake Funk said. “It doesn’t seem like a lot, but from 19 to , he’s lived a whole decade more than I have. There’s some things I learn from him that I’ve picked up from him … just experiences he’s had because he’s been around the world and done a lot of things.”
On the field, Lees adds versatility to the punting game. He features three types of kicks — rugby style, two-step spiral and opposite foot — making him unpredictable.
Lees favors the rugby-style kick, where he runs to the side and kicks a line-drive punt. It’s easy to aim away from returners and often rolls forward after bouncing. But in recent games, Lees has kept teams off balance by mixing in the more traditional spiral kick, which features a higher arc and further distance through the air.
On about four or five occasions last year, Lees punted with his weaker right foot to avoid pressure from the left side.
“We don’t always have to be a roll-out, rugby-type team or a pocket directional-type team,” Durkin said. “… That’s a weapon for us.”
After Lees unleashed his most important punt to date against Indiana, pinning the Hoosiers on their own one-yard line, he and linebacker Jermaine Carter met each other midair in celebration. Lees ran down the Terps sideline giving out high-fives. Center Brendan Moore thanked him for the clutch kick.
That moment underlined Lees’ acceptance in College Park.
“Oh, I like it. I like it a lot,” defensive lineman Kingsley Opara said. “When Wade does that, it swings the field for us to get a stop and gives the offense a great chance to score.”
After earning widespread praise for his latest performance, Lees was asked to consider his long-term ambitions. He mentioned former All-American Maryland kicker Brad Craddock — also born in Australia — as an inspiration. There are three starting Australian punters in the NFL, and Lees hopes to join that group.
“If I have half as good of a career as Craddock did, then I’ll be happy,” Lees said. “If I can punt here in these conditions – obviously Big Ten football conditions are the hardest in the country with the wind and cold – who knows where it might take me.”