Indiana has three punters on its spring practice roster gunning to replace the graduated Haydon Whitehead. There’s a good chance that the man who wins the job will punt for the very first time in a football game that counts on Sept. 4 against Iowa.
James Evans, a freshman from Auckland, New Zealand, had zero football experience when he arrived on campus this spring. The first time he put on pads in his life was the third practice of the spring. And at this point, he doesn’t really have the hang of that yet.
“You kind of take it for granted, but the dude is out there taking his helmet off before he gets off the field,” Indiana special teams coach Kasey Teegardin said. “You have to tell him, ‘Well, hey man, you can’t take your helmet off, that’s a penalty.’ He’s very new. He’s very raw to a lot of this.”
And the way Indiana football coach Tom Allen structures practice to keep players on their toes, that exposes Evans even more.
“He’s tying his shoe and coach is calling an emergency punt,” Teegardin said. “I love when coach Allen does that. James is out there tying his shoe. You don’t have time to tie your shoes. The play clock is running.”
But Evans seems to be at least handling the missteps well and adjusting with good humor anyway, being a stranger in a strange land playing a strange sport. He was a high school rugby player and trained with Prokick Australia, just as Whitehead did, so he had a sense of what he was getting into.
“He’s learning a ton,” Teegardin said. “To get him in here mid-year is such a huge deal. … It’s been a learning curve for him, but he’s taken everything in stride. He’s a tremendous young man. He’s mature for his age.”
And he has a chance in the punter race because he has serious raw power. He’s 6-foot-1, 222 pounds with a powerful build and a lot of juice in his lower body.
“James has a massive leg,” sophomore kicker Charles Campbell said. “When he gets ahold of the ball, he hits some of the biggest balls I’ve ever seen.”
The other major addition to the specialists from the offseason is on the opposite end of the experience spectrum. Graduate transfer D.J. Matthews was a U.S. Army All-American at Trinity Christian Academy in Jacksonville and played three seasons at Florida State before opting out in 2020 and transferring to Indiana. He’ll make a push to start at slot receiver, but he’ll also be one of the favorites to earn the punt returner job. He returned 56 for 582 yards in his Florida State career.
“D.J has just been phenomenal,” Teegardin said.
He has to battle cornerback Reese Taylor for the punt returner job. Taylor returned nine punts for 73 yards as the starter last season. But his speed should give him an edge there, and he’ll have an opportunity to make an impact on special teams regardless of whether he wins that gig or not.
“I think DJ can help us as a gunner as well on the punt unit,” Teegardin said. “You get a guy that has great ball skills that can get downfield, get under a punt with a lot of hangtime and down it at the 1. We know that’s a big game changer for us.”
Elsewhere on special teams, the Hoosiers will have familiar faces to lean on. Jared Smolar is back to handle kickoffs after booting 22 of his 44 for touchbacks last year and averaging 62.2 yards per kick. Campbell also returns after hitting 10 of his 11 field goal attempts last season including all three of his attempts from 50 yards and beyond.
Campbell has some adjusting to do this season as well because Whitehead was his holder. Punter Chase Wyatt gets that job this season.
“I’ve been working on my field goal height and just accuracy from distance,” Campbell said. “I feel like the most important piece I’ve been working on in spring ball is breaking in our new holder Chase Wyatt. I’ve been getting a lot of reps with him and with him and (longsnapper Sean Wracher) just getting that togetherness down.”
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