JMU Athletic Communications
HARRISONBURG — The first football game Harry O’Kelly ever attended was the one he trotted out of the tunnel and onto the field for.
“I was just excited, I think,” said James Madison’s first-year punter from Australia. “Even when I ran out there, I was like, ‘Oh, here we go.’ It was pretty loud.”
JMU special teams coordinator Roy Tesh said he could remember joking with O’Kelly before the Dukes beat FBS East Carolina that day at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C.
“His parents actually flew over from Australia to see the game and spend some time with him because they hadn’t seen him since he’d been here,” Tesh said. “So I said, ‘Harry, it’s going to be kind of exciting that your folks are going to see their first ever college football game.’ And then he remarked, ‘It’s going to be exciting for us all to see our first college football game.’
“And that kind of put it in perspective there that he was pretty new and that we had to explain to him what we wanted him to do.”
Luxury Of The Athletic Punter
Mike Houston recalled sitting in the stands at the Georgia Dome in awe of how West Virginia sealed its 38-35 Sugar Bowl win over Georgia in 2006. The game had been moved from New Orleans to Atlanta, as the Louisiana Superdome wasn’t set for use in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The JMU coach was just a spectator then, still in the process of transitioning from his final year as a high school coach to his new job as a college assistant. But he could recite the play in which the game was won as if he were a die-hard fan of the Mountaineers.
“Late in the game, West Virginia is punting and they have a rugby-style scheme going right there,” Houston said. “They’re getting ready to punt the ball and at the time it was a one-possession game. All of the sudden, the kid takes off.”
With less than two minutes to play, West Virginia punter Phil Brady executed a fake punt, keeping the ball for a 10-yard gain on a fourth-and-6 to move the chains.
“They go victory formation and win the game,” Houston said. “Georgia never gets the ball back.”
Ever since then, Houston has thought of the punter as a potential weapon.
And when JMU had the opportunity to sign a punter in its latest recruiting class, Houston wasn’t necessarily looking for an athletic punter, but was happy when he contacted his friend Andre Powell, the special teams coordinator at Pittsburgh, who connected him with Nathan Chapman of ProKick Australia.
O’Kelly said he spent about a year working with Chapman, a former Australian Rules Football professional turned American football punting instructor.
“I just did some film on a rugby oval where someone just throws me the ball and I kick it,” the 20-year old O’Kelly said. “That was it. [JMU] got in contact with me and I committed.”
Houston and former JMU special teams coordinator John Bowers recruited O’Kelly. When Bowers left the program for a job on the west coast, and Tesh came on board, it wasn’t long after Houston and the staff realized what O’Kelly’s skill set could provide the team with.
O’Kelly arrived at JMU in May.
“Fairly quickly you could see that he was different,” Tesh said. “There were some things that he could do to control the ball just from his background from what he’s done in the past.
“He’s had some good coaching as well, so I can’t sit here and take credit for a lot of what he could do because a lot of that is natural.”
Lost In Football Translation
O’Kelly’s background in football is the Australian game, which he describes as a combination of rugby and soccer.
“I get this question a lot, so normally I just show people a five-minute video on YouTube,” O’Kelly said with chuckle. “But the way you pass it to each other is the way I kick the ball here. In Australian Rules Football I run and I kick, so there will be people running at me and I’m like a quarterback with my feet.
“I’ll run with the ball and put it in front of them if they catch it, so it’s a lot of running. You run about 15 miles a game, so I’m a bit of a runner.”
"He can run, kick and read everything going on naturally because that’s what Australian Rules Football players do."
So when O’Kelly pulled off a fake punt on a fourth-and-7 from JMU’s own 18-yard line in the fourth quarter of the Dukes’ 20-10 win at Delaware this past Saturday, no member of the coaching staff was surprised.
“The play Saturday, he can look down the field and read what’s going on and still he instinctively can kick it,” Houston said. “He can run, kick and read everything going on naturally because that’s what Australian Rules Football players do.
“So it does make it a very natural thing in where he can kick it or run it without panicking under duress in a lot of different situations.”
But as instinctively as the run-fake might have looked, O’Kelly is understandably still learning the American game.
Though the training he got from Chapman helped, O’Kelly hadn’t seen actual yard markers or hash lines on a field until he traveled to America. O’Kelly had been to the states twice prior to enrolling at JMU — once for a family vacation to Colorado and then one more time about a year ago with Chapman and a group of touring punters that visited the University of Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State.
Some of the first parts of the game Houston had to teach him were elementary.
“We started talking about certain positions on the field and he didn’t understand that where the ball is spotted that he’s 14 yards back,” Houston said. “So it’s little stuff like that, which is common sense to most other players, but to him it’s all new.”
O’Kelly said he’s appreciative of how Houston and Tesh have gone out of their way to teach him the game.
O’Kelly has fellow Aussie punting friends that went through ProKick Australia with him at other colleges and said he’s heard some horror stories of how their coaches just yell at them.
“It’s helped,” O’Kelly said of Houston and his staff’s teaching style. “We worked a lot of that during camp and I spent many hours with Coach Tesh and Coach Houston showing me different block points and things like that; where the shield is going, where the gunners go and where I have to put the ball.”
Houston added JMU has even adjusted some of its punting schemes to accommodate their punter from Down Under.
“The big thing we’re trying to do with the rest of our guys is get them out of the way so he has space,” Houston said. “We just want to keep guys out of his face.”
Citizen Of The World
Through five games, O’Kelly has found immediate success on the field. In addition to his well-executed fake, he’s punted 11 times for an average of 42.5 yards — the second-best net-punting average in the Colonial Athletic Association. He’s landed six of those 11 kicks inside the opponent’s 20.
Off the field, he said he’s adapted to life on a college campus in America. The gregarious punter is studying business marketing because he said he feels he has an outgoing personality.
And it’s a diverse personality unique to O’Kelly.
Born in Japan, he has dual citizenship in Australia and Ireland. Before coming to Harrisonburg on a student visa, he moved from Melbourne to Brisbane to join Chapman’s punting school.
While practicing his punting during the day under Chapman’s watch, O’Kelly worked as a bartender in Brisbane at night.
“I think it’s helped that I’ve seen a lot,” O’Kelly said. “I haven’t struggled with anything here yet.”
O’Kelly’s father, Tom, who was born in Ireland, is a traveling percussionist playing in orchestras across the world, which is why O’Kelly said he was born in Japan.
And since boarding the 13-hour flight from Australia to Los Angeles and then another six-hour plane ride from Los Angeles to Washington, he said what he misses most is his family – his mother, Alison, his older sister and his two younger brothers.
“I miss being close to the beach. I was close to beaches back home,” O’Kelly said. “And then I miss going to the footy [Australian football] and I’ve tried to catch some games here but they’re on at like 3 a.m., and then also just hanging out with my mates.”
He said there are people to talk with when he misses home or feels lonely. O’Kelly said he’s become good friends with JMU kicker Tyler Gray and fellow punter Jeremiah McBride. He’s gotten to know Gray’s family, too.
He also can talk with the rest of Chapman’s pupils in the states. O’Kelly knows other specialists at Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, Ohio State, Pitt, Texas and Villanova. One of his closest friends is Virginia Tech punter Oscar Bradburn. The punters have a group message on Facebook that keeps them all in contact.
“It really helps having guys around me and even older guys that I can message and ask about different situations,” O’Kelly said. “Oscar, he’s a really great guy, we chat every week just about college and football and it’s not always football, but it’s good.
“It’s a life adjustment and being so far away from home and friends and family, sometimes it’s tough, but I’m lucky that the guys on the team are great, too. They can tell if I’m down and they lift me back up.”
'Get Yourself An Australian'
As for Aussie punters in America, O’Kelly knows he won’t be the last.
His youngest brother, Thomas, who is 14, frequently sends O’Kelly video of him punting.
“He’s like, ‘Worked on this today, Harry, it was great.’ I’m like, ‘Good stuff, bro, that’s cool,’” O’Kelly said.
Chapman has more ready to make the jump, too, and American coaches are always looking for an edge — something to differentiate their team from the opposition.
“Harry is unique because he can rugby it going right or rugby it going left,” Houston said. “He can rugby to the field or rugby to the boundary. He can traditional punt. We rugbied it to our short side and our long side on Saturday out of our punt formations.
“He’s so versatile that in time, I think you’re going to see people defend us differently with the punt unit.”
And on top of that, at least according to O’Kelly, Australian punters have the skill set college coaches need in order to execute their game plans.
“It seems to me, in America, you just don’t find a lot of kids from a young age that want to be a kicker or punter. But back home we’re all kicking a football since we were 4 years old,” O’Kelly said. “So I think once that door opened up, coaches realized they can change the game with the way we kick the ball.
“Then coaches talk. That’s how I’m here, so hopefully more of my mates back home, I open up the door for them. If coaches like the way I punt the ball, they may want one, too.
“Get yourself an Australian.”