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Helmet issues behind him, IU punter James Evans is acclimating to American football

James Evans wasn’t ready for wearing a helmet.

The Indiana freshman punter was aware he was in for a lot of adjustments moving to the United States from New Zealand and beginning a football career in the Big Ten after spending most of his youth playing rugby. He’d learned how to punt at Prokick Australia, the same kicking and punting program that produced former Indiana punter Haydon Whitehead, so he understood what the basic function of his job would be and shown proficiency in it, but the rest of the game was still very much foreign.

Especially headgear.

One of the most frequently told stories of the spring practice period that was almost entirely closed to the media was of the time Evans punted the ball, then removed his helmet before he returned to the sideline. Teammates put it all over Twitter and coaches mentioned it whenever they were asked about where Evans stood in the punting competition.

“That was a bit of a learning curve,” Evans said in his thick Kiwi accent Thursday in a Zoom press conference with IU beat reporters. “I didn’t realize how heavy it was initially. It was about five pounds. It’s molded to my head. That was a bit of a challenge. I didn’t realize you couldn’t take it off. I think I was only 2 yards from the sideline when I took it off.”

But 2 yards inside the sideline is still 2 yards inside the sideline, and the coaches let him know about it. His penalty for that was running stadium stairs.

“I didn’t realize how big our stadium was until then,” Evans said. “Stairs at 50,000-capacity stadiums are not fun to run up. Lesson learned. That’s not something I’ll do again, for sure.”

Other than that, Evans said, his first spring practice period was mostly successful in getting him used to what’s coming. Because of his leg that is by the accounts of his coaches, extremely powerful, he seems to be the favorite to replace Whitehead. He entered practice without much of an idea of what that meant other than kicking the ball as far as he can. He has a much better now of the finer points of the position and what will be asked from him.

“There’s more to punting than just kicking the ball schematically,” Evans said. “Coach (Kase) Teegardin did a really good job of teaching me throughout the spring and easing that transition. … Following my lines directly behind the shield and stuff like that. Having him teaching me just eased that transition.”

Evans was a rugby player for most of his youth with gave him extensive experience of kicking the ball. His desire to do that eventually waned. He had watched some football on the weekends growing up in New Zealand since he was about 13 and the idea of major college football appealed to him. He admits that he didn’t quite understand how big of a deal it was in the U.S. until he arrived.

“Until you really get here, you don’t understand the scale of things,” Evans said. “The general public, how much they care about college athletics and how nice the facilities are, all that kind of stuff. Kicking in the stadium for the first time in January was really surreal. Now it’s just a field, but those first two weeks you’re here, you’re like, ‘Wow, this is so cool. Everything is so developed, so top-tier.”

He’s also getting used to life in the U.S. in general. Food hasn’t been much of a transition — he’s a fan of Buffalouie’s — and he speaks the language, but there are some differences in slang.

“There’s a slight language barrier at times,” he said. “I’ll say words, and people will be like, ‘What are you saying.’ But more or less at this point, being here for six months, I’m pretty much acclimated. This is home now.”

And he’s getting used to the helmet too.