Friday, August 15, 2014

SPORTS STORY >> Ambidextrous kickers aren’t unusual for Hogs’ punter

Special to The Leader

FAYETTEVILLE – Sam Irwin-Hill arrived at Arkansas last year putting his best feet forward as he has since instructed as a lad by his dad Down Under.

The Ray Guy Award preseason watch list punter after averaging 44.3 yards per Razorbacks punt last season, including a SEC leading 20 downed inside the 20 with a career long 79-yard punt, Irwin-Hill kicked ambidextrously for the Hogs like he did the previous two junior college years at City College of San Francisco and practically all his life growing up in Bendingo, Australia.

“It came from Australian Rules Football,” Irwin-Hill said of kicking with either foot.

“When I was four or five my dad took me out to a field and said ‘Kick with both feet’ or else he would take me home. So it was a big deal.”

A big deal that quickly became bigger.

“I had a lot of inspiration,” Irwin-Hill said. “There were a lot of superstars in Australia who kicked with the left and right foot. So that’s where it came from and I thought it would be a big deal to introduce it to the American style of football and it has definitely played that way.”

Punt returners and the coaches designing schemes for them are bound to have some uncertainty from which foot an Irwin-Hill punt will be delivered even knowing they can guess “right” 75 percent of the time and probably will be correct guessing a higher right percentage this season.

“Last year it was probably 75/25 right foot,” Irwin-Hill said. “The dominant foot is the right foot. That’s where the strength comes from and I want to focus on the NFL traditional style. I practiced a lot more this summer on the more traditional style so I am really looking forward to put that more in the game this year.”

But not entirely. The unexpected angles from a surprise left-footed punt can “definitely” be more difficult to field, Irwin-Hill said and enhance the chances of pinning an opponent deep.

It also expands Coach Bret Bielema’s trick play options. A 6-3, 209 fine all-round athlete, Irwin-Hill off a fake punt completed a 24-yard pass for a first down last year and dashed 12 yards for a first down off a fake against Alabama and he’s ambidextrously adept at rugby-style punting.

“If we have that gap and there’s a little wind behind my back, Coach B has that confidence in me,” Irwin-Hill said of punting left-footed. “Or if there is a space open on that left side we could run the football. There are a lot of different things we can do and to have that versatility is really good.”

It’s more punter versatility than new special teams coach Rory Segrest has coached before.

“I can say I have not,” Segrest said of coaching an ambidextrous punter. “To me it’s a great talking piece, but I just want him kicking where they fair-catch. If it’s right-footed or left-footed or whatever it is just make sure to hang it up there in the right spot where they can’t return it.”

Most times last year that’s what Irwin-Hill achieved.

Just how did Arkansas and a San Francisco junior college before Arkansas and an Australian kicker get together?

“I did an academy in Australia called Pro Kick Australia,” Irwin-Hill said. “That was designed specifically to coach potential kickers and punters from Australian Rules to American football. I practiced in that academy for 12 months and sent over a video. I got a lot of attention from the videos but in terms of grades I had to go to a junior college and that’s where I ended up in San Francisco and I was more than happy to start my career there.”

And even happier to end up at Arkansas.

“Arkansas responded to the videos,” Irwin-Hill said. “I looked at Arkansas and I never looked back. I came straight here and I committed straightaway. It’s a great place.”