CEDAR RAPIDS — It took LeVar Woods roughly 52 hours of round-trip travel time last winter to meet with a recruit. That’s dedication.
The Iowa special teams coach endured a seven-hour layover in the San Francisco airport, which did allow him time to watch former Hawkeyes tight end George Kittle and his San Francisco 49ers win the NFL’s NFC championship. That was a good thing.
But once he boarded his plane, Woods was essentially stuck in his seat for 15 hours, the flight time from San Francisco to Melbourne, Australia.
“Once I got over there, it was very unique,” Woods said. “Travel going in the opposite direction, which makes it a little bit different. It’s not like recruiting in St. Louis or Dallas or Northwest Iowa, where I’ve recruited before.”
Woods and Iowa were targeting a punter named Tory Taylor, whose tape they’d come across. Taylor had grown up playing Australian Rules Football, but his only experience with the American game was watching it on television: both the NFL and college.
He’d never, ever played in a game. Talk about a big leap of faith.
“Back home in Australia, we play Aussie Rules Football, and I’d always kind of been a big kicker of that football,” Taylor said. “A couple of friends told me, look, there are Aussie guys over in America punting, so why don’t I look into it. I thought, well, what did I have to lose? It’s a great opportunity, so I joined Pro Kick Australia in the middle of last year.”
Pro Kick Australia was formed in 2007 to develop punters and kickers from the island nation capable enough to come over to the United States and play in college and hopefully eventually the pros. Iowa’s punter last season, Michael Sleep-Dalton, was a Pro Kick guy who began at Arizona State before grad transferring to the Hawkeyes.
This was another Aussie, one that would be a 23-year-old freshman.
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“I think it’s just the different tools that we have, the different tricks,” Taylor said. “Here you go out and throw a baseball, you throw a football. While back home, we’re kicking the football. I’ve been kicking an Aussie Rules football for 20 years, actually, since I came out of the womb pretty much. But I’ve only been kicking an American football for about 18 months now. So that was an adjustment in itself.”
One he has made successfully. Taylor committed to Iowa after Woods’ in-person visit to see him and his family and won a three-leg race, so to speak, for Iowa’s punting job this season.
One of the guys he beat out was Ryan Gersonde, who was born in Milwaukee but ironically lived with his family down under for over a decade before returning to Wisconsin. Taylor is averaging 46.1 yards in his first two games, with three punts of over 50 yards and two that were downed inside the 20-yard line.
“Every person has their own unique story, and Tory certainly has his own,” Woods said. “Very interesting guy, I highly encourage you to talk to him. He might not be completely forthcoming and outright because he’s a little bit shy. But a very phenomenal story.”
“I’d probably be working,” Taylor said, when asked what he’d be doing right now had he not decided to take a chance on learning how to punt an American football. “Honestly, every time I walk out the doors here for practice, it’s like ‘Wow, I’m pretty lucky.’ At Purdue and last Saturday (at home against Northwestern), I kind of just took a moment, and it was like ‘Oh, wow, this is it.’ I guess I’ve kind of made it. With what I’m doing, I’m just trying to make my family and friends proud of me.”
Taylor had to quarantine twice before ever making it to the practice field: once before he left Australia and once he got to Iowa City. You know, COVID-19 and everything.
His home nation has pretty much eradicated the virus, while the U.S. is struggling with it, something he said he doesn’t worry much about. He is focused on continuing to learn, continuing to improve and doing what he can to help Iowa finally get into the win column.
Come to think of it, that would probably be not having to punt at all Saturday against Michigan State.
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“I have learned that I can do it,” he said. “I think, like, the hardest thing is you’re always thinking about the what-ifs and trying to play the game before it’s played. I’m not going to lie, I kind of sat in my hotel room (before the Purdue game) and was thinking ‘Well, what if this goes wrong? What if that goes wrong?’ But I think the biggest thing now is I know that I can do it. Now it’s just trying to get better every day, just trying to improve and help the team.”
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