Bob Gregory believes Whitford can be “a real weapon” for the Huskies this season, which is why UW’s linebackers coach and special-teams coordinator flew to Australia to recruit him — and more like him.
Bob Gregory has been a college football coach for 30 years and has recruited hundreds of players from all over the country in his career. But never has Gregory gone to such lengths as he did to get Joel Whitford to come to the University of Washington.
Gregory believes Whitford can be “a real weapon” for the Huskies this season, which is why UW’s linebackers coach and special-teams coordinator flew to Australia to recruit him — and more like him.
Most recruiting trips keep Gregory on the West Coast. The flight to Australia was a 16-hour trip each way, and he lost an entire day going there while crossing the international date line. Few coaches make such an effort for one recruit.
But Gregory did. He did it … for a punter.
Most Read Sports Stories
- Mario Cristobal is leaving Oregon. Here's what to know about his departure and six potential replacements
- Fresno State's Ryan Grubb to follow Kalen DeBoer to UW as offensive coordinator
- Win over 49ers shows Seahawks' success starts and stops with Russell Wilson, and they must keep him happy
- The Seahawks' win likely won't save their season, but it sure was entertaining
- 'This one really hurts': Longtime Sonics trainer Frank Furtado dies at 90
And he’s hardly the only one in college football doing so.
One of Australia’s greatest exports to the United States has become punters, and the 24-year-old Whitford is one of the newest to arrive in major-college football.
Utah popularized the use of Australian punters in recent years — Tom Hackett and his successor, Mitch Wishnowsky, combined to win the last three Ray Guy awards, given to the nation’s top punter — and now half of the teams in the Pac-12 have an Australian punter on their roster.
“It’s just happening more and more,” Gregory said. “Those guys are really hard to defend.”
UW coach Chris Petersen has long preferred rugby-style punting, in which the punter typically rolls out to the right, buying time for his coverage team to get down field, and then kicking the ball low, intending for an end-over-end bounce that can make life difficult — if not miserable — for the opposing punt returner.
Dante Pettis, UW’s all-time leading punt returner, said fielding Whitford’s punts in practice hasn’t been much fun, but he says it should help him against other rugby-style punters during the season.
“Those kicks, there’s something different about them, the way they spin, the way they carry,” Pettis said. “It’s hard to get a read on it, and so having someone that kicks that style out here helps tremendously.”
UW senior Tristan Vizcaino, a California native, was UW’s primary punter last year. At Petersen’s behest, Vizcaino made the switch to the rugby punt after growing up punting the traditional way, where hang time is paramount.
Vizcaino did a fine job last year in that role, allowing just 13 punt returns in 14 games. Whitford, he said, will be even better.
“The way he kicks the ball is definitely different than the way I kick the ball,” said Vizcaino, now preparing to take over as UW’s regular place-kicker. “He’s got more of an end-over-end deal, which is great. … He’s got a huge leg. You can expect him to do a really great job.”
Though 24 years old, the 6-foot-3, 224-pound Whitford came to UW as a sophomore with three years of eligibility. Whitford grew up on a 500-acre dairy farm — with some 300 cattle — in Neerim South, Australia, and he moved to the U.S. a year and a half ago to punt at Santa Barbara junior college. He can kick with either foot, though he’ll only kick with his left in an emergency.
Describing it as “rugby-style” punting is a misnomer, at least in Whitford’s case. Whitford actually grew up playing Australian Rules Football — sort of a hybrid of soccer and rugby. Gregory’s trip to Australia was less about recruiting Whitford — the punter actually was in California at the time — and more about establishing a relationship with Whitford’s coach.
The Huskies, like many other major-college programs, are hoping to create a punters’ pipeline from Down Under.
“That’s what all those kids grow up playing. They grow up kicking the ball,” Gregory said. “We (in the U.S.) grow up throwing the ball. And they just have bodies coming at them all the time, and they have the ability to — if you’re coming at me, it doesn’t matter. How they position their wrist, they have the ability to wrap the ball around (their foot). It’s just comfortable for them.”
Since Whitford’s arrival at UW in January, teammates and coaches say he has assimilated well. (As a “newcomer” to the program, Whitford is not made available for media interviews, per team rules.)
“We all love him,” Vizcaino said. “He’s a great guy, and I think he’s going to do great things for us this year.”
• Race Porter, a freshman walk-on punter out of O’Dea High School, has also drawn praise from coaches during his first camp.
• Quarterback Jake Browning and coach Chris Petersen were the most popular Huskies during UW’s annual Picture Day event following Sunday’s first practice in full pads. The line to get a picture with Browning stretched from the back corner of the east end zone to the 35-yard line, then curled 20 yards into the field. Several thousand fans attended the open practice, and the Huskies posed for pictures for an hour after the workout.