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Football: Cajun punting — Aussie style

UL punter Daniel Cordona participates in practice Monday at the Leon Moncla Indoor Practice Facility in Lafayette.  By Leslie Westbrook  March 25, 2013 

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, March 31, 2013

In his double-duty as UL’s special-teams coach, Ragin’ Cajuns head coach Mark Hudspeth is willing to go only so far.

He evidently draws the line at showing his new punter — Australian import Daniel Cadona, who has never played in an actual competitive American football game — how to dress.

"That’s been the biggest challenge, is showing him how to put his pads on," Hudspeth said. "I let all the other kickers show him how to do that."

And initially, at least, gearing up wasn’t easy for the expected successor to dependable Brett Baer as UL’s one-and-only punter.

"I got a lot of help when I first got them," Cadona said of taken-for-granted-in-America luxuries like shoulder pads and chin straps.

"Obviously I had no idea what sort of pads I wanted, or what size or anything like that. But (Cajun equipment managers) were really good to give me advice.

"Then some of the boys in the locker room made comments about wearing them for the first time," Cadona added. "But, to be honest, it wasn’t too different. "» After a couple training sessions, or ‘practices,’ it’s not much of an issue any more."

What to wear in Sun Belt Conference play is but one adjustment in a world of many that must by made by 24-year-old Cadona, a former Australian rules football player who decided to take up the American version of the game after injuries mounted and he realized his chance of ever playing in the Australian Football League (AFL) was on the short side of slim-to-none.

After a few years spent attending a university in Sydney, fruitlessly chasing the Aussie rules dream, rehabbing a recurring shoulder injury and toiling at his father’s electrical business, Cadona turned to an American-style punting, kicking and holding academy in Melbourne — OzPunt — so he could learn how punt the pigskin.

And boom it he can.

Cadona may not know the difference between offsides and on, but, Hudspeth said, "he’s got an incredible leg" that he’s been showing off since spring practice for the Cajuns got under way earlier this month.

"I think he’ll be one of the better punters in the country," said Hudspeth, whose club plays its annual spring game April 20 at Cajun Field.

"My biggest concern," Hudspeth added, "is him outkicking the coverage. "» You don’t see that very often."

After learning the fundamentals from OzPunt, Cadona returned with a plan to his family home in Darwin — a small capital city of about 130,000 on the Timor Sea in the sparsely populated Northern Territory of Australia.

He bought two American footballs on the Internet, spent some time watching NFL punters on YouTube and scouted locales where he could punt away.

He often had to shag his own kicks.

"It was just me in a park, or me on a football field, by myself, most weekends," said Cadona, who also played rugby for a couple years while in high school.

On occasion, a brother or friend would videotape him — and Cadona would take the film back to OzPunt in Melbourne for more pointers.

The Cajuns caught wind of the Aussie with both a foot and eligibility to boot — the NCAA has cleared Cadona for two seasons at UL — and, desperately in need with Baer’s career complete, offered him a scholarship last summer.

Cadona quickly accepted, and honored his non-binding verbal commitment even when overtures from other programs, including UCLA, were made.

And now the Cajuns have their punter, one whose first formal game in a UL uniform — likely its Aug. 31 season-opener at Arkansas of the SEC — will also be his first at any level of American football.

"He was a little uncomfortable, probably, kicking for the first day or two (of spring practice) with a helmet on, and shoulder pads, and the adjustment of kicking with people running at you," Hudspeth said. "But, I’ll tell you: He’s a very good athlete, a big kid with an incredibly strong leg. I really like where he’s at right now.

"It’s gonna be a little bit of worry on that first kick in Fayetteville, Ark., in front of 80,000. I’ll be anxious to get that kick behind," Hudspeth added. "But he’s a competitor, and there doesn’t seem to be much that fazes him."

At 6-foot-4 and full of muscles, the punter from a land down under may not offer you a Vegemite sandwich.

But he’s a man at work learning a new trade, and he’s Aussie through-and-through — accent and all.

Consider the time Cadona followed up on his promise to telephone Hudspeth.

"He says, ‘Coach, I tried to ring you,’ " Hudspeth said. "The first two times he told me that I had no idea what he was talking about."

Australian-to-American English translation helps, too, when Cadona explains how the need for three reconstructive surgeries on his right shoulder led to the end of his Aussie rules playing days.

"That’s why I ended up pulling up stumps," he said.

Pulling up stumps?

Re-phrased, is essentially means stopping an activity.

The expression actually stems from pulling stumps out of the ground after a match of cricket, another game — like Australian rules — largely foreign to most Americans.

But it can also mean cutting home roots and relocating.

For Cadona, both are relevant.

"There’s a lot of contact," he said of Australian rules football, a sport in which tackling is permitted, no pads are worn and points are scored by kicking a ball between goalposts but not by throwing or running into an end zone. "It’s full-contact, and a lot of times you get taken to the ground.

"So, it’s pretty brutal. But it’s just about having that awareness, and having good vision to see players coming and what-not. It’s tough, and there’s a lot of injuries."

Enough to know when enough’s enough.

"Someone suggested I should start punting," Cadona said, "because it’s becoming pretty common in Australia and it’s getting big with kids who either didn’t make the AFL or (had) an injury, like my case, but was a good punter or kicker.

"So I just thought I’d try it out. Then, once I got into it, I got hooked, and I really enjoyed doing it. And, honestly, I just wanted to come over and get back being in a team environment, playing a sport."

Cadona’s latest team sport, however, comes with some unfamiliar facets.

The actual punting motion may be similar — the torpedo, or spiral, is most akin, but the checkside, or banana, curves the ball with English one way, and the snap spins it the opposite way — but little else is.

The Aussie ball is bigger and easier to kick than the American one designed to be thrown, and the time in which a punt must be made is much shorter in America.

"Absolute, it’s a big difference," Cadona said.

"Most of the time back there I had the choice to kick the ball when I wanted to or run the ball, but here I’m sort of stuck with my two-step process while just relying on the protection to block for me.

"At first, all that movement from players around me was a bit distracting — but it was just a matter of getting a few reps, and after a couple practices it doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore," he added. "I just keep my eye on the ball, and am not focused on what everybody is doing but believing that they’ll do their job."

Having to wear protective gear from the head down to the shins also is something to which Cadona must grow accustomed.

So, too, is the manner in which hitting occurs.

In Aussie rules, opponents can bump or tackle ballcarrriers — but the player with the ball must release it when that happens, counter intuitive to the American notion that fumbling is a bad thing.

Players also must tackle between the knees and shoulders; no shoestring takedowns are permitted.

"I’m used to running straight ahead-first into someone who’s just going to drop their shoulder, and not having any pads or a helmet," Cadona said. "So, it’s different. But I’m getting used to it."

Back home, however, the Aussies are apt to mock some of the safeguards of American football.

"People make fun of it, and they sort of think, ‘Why do they play with pads? They can probably just play without pads,’ " Cadona said. "And me as a punter — they don’t understand why I have to wear pads (when) I’m most likely not gonna get hit.

"I say, ‘The game’s been going for so long, that’s just the way it is.’ "

Cadona understands that opportunities to hit — and the chances of being hit — are limited when punting.

But, even with all those reconstructive shoulder surgeries, he’ll be expected to tackle should need be.

"I’ve been watching the other boys do it, and asking for some pointers," Cadona said.

"The coach has been coaching me up on which way to put my head and drive my shoulder and things like that. But I’m not too worried about it. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to make a tackle at some stage during the season.

"If someone hits me," he added, "hopefully I’ll see them coming so I (can) sort of brace myself if they take me down. I’m not too worried about it. "» But I’m sure they’ll enjoy it if they get a chance to hit me."

It’s something, he knows, that comes with the territory of the game he can now call his.

It’s a sport he can’t wait to play, especially when it counts.

"So far I love it here," said Cadona, who started school at UL in January. "I’m having the best time of my life.

"I really didn’t know what to expect turning up, but ever since I’ve been here everyone’s been really good, really friendly. Everyone’s helped me out a lot with football, training, and even in the classroom and just living. Everybody’s been fantastic.

"The opportunity to continue school is really good, and it’s an adventure and it’s an experience," he added. "It still hasn’t hit me that I’m really doing it, but for the rest of my life I’ll always be so glad I took that opportunity to come and experience something different for at least a couple of years."