Gophers punter lauded for going the distance

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 13, 2012 - 6:24 AM

Christian Eldred traveled nearly 10,000 miles from Australia to earn a starting job with the Gophers.

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Christian Eldred: The Australian native is off to a good start in his first season as the Gophers’ punter.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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They met through a website, willingly trusting their hopes and dreams for the future to an online matchmaker. They had no direct contact initially, partly because of the 15 time zones separating this long-distance relationship, but it didn't take long for a strong attraction to develop anyway.

One party was mailed a videotape of the other, and in repeated viewings, grew more and more infatuated; the other received only verbal descriptions and assurances about his potential partner, but somehow he sensed that it was meant to be. After months of anticipation, a face-to-face meeting was arranged in March. A whirlwind courtship ensued, before the question was popped and the engagement was set.

And that's how Jerry Kill ... fixed the Gophers' field-position problems.

Thanks, eHarmony.

Or in this case: ProKickAustralia, the Internet site that helped Minnesota and punter Christian Eldred find each other.

"To be honest, I wasn't all that actively involved" in choosing Minnesota, said Eldred, who grew up in Melbourne. "It was done by the two coaches I had at ProKick back in Australia. I trusted them to make those decisions. They sort of handled all that, talking to schools, gauging interest, sending my tapes."

On the other end, Kill's special-teams coach, Jay Saw-vel, was aware of ProKick's history of turning promising Australian Rules Football players into American football placekickers and punters. Their protégés have kicked at Florida State and LSU, Utah and Hawaii, and Sawvel had long been intrigued by the prospect of expanding the potential pool of recruits.

He had gotten to know Nathan Chapman, a former Aussie Rules player and Packers tryout punter who runs the website and its kicking clinic, and figured the time might come when they could help each other.

That time came last winter, when Kill was determined to fix a punting problem that had nagged the Gophers for years. "I was informed by several people in the media that my job was on the line if we didn't find a punter," Kill joked this week, but nine months ago, he was privately urging Sawvel to find more options.

So Sawvel began thinking internationally.

"Nathan had told me about Christian in late January, so we sort of had him on a list. Evaluated his video. And at a staff meeting, Coach Kill said, 'OK, who's the best one we've seen?'" Sawvel recalled. "Well, Christian is, the Australian. So he just sort of went into his own little category -- let's try to get this worked out, and if it does, then it does."

It did, mostly because Eldred fell for Minnesota from nearly 10,000 miles away. A freshman at Monash University, he was playing Aussie Rules Football, but heard about athletes who had used their kicking prowess to come to America.

"If you can come over to play sport, and get a degree whilst doing it, you'd be stupid not to, wouldn't you?" he said.

He contacted ProKick, which invited him to one of its clinics.

Before long, Eldred was a ProKick pupil, turning his run-and-kick Aussie Rules talents into standard American punting skills, just as the Gophers called. He googled Minnesota to learn about the school and state, and soon was convinced. At his own expense, he visited campus during spring football, a fact-finding mission that convinced both parties.

"It's a really friendly atmosphere around campus, and the coaches are friendly and welcoming," Eldred said. "It seemed like it would be an easy transition."

The Gophers had the same reaction.

"We were glad that he came here, so we could get an idea about his character, those type of things. You could see he's a good kid, he was raised right, and he wants a chance to come here and get a degree."

Under NCAA rules, Eldred couldn't kick for the coaches, but they were sold anyway. He was invited to walk on, and compete for a scholarship. Eldred returned in August to register -- and was told he had to leave the country. His student visa had not yet taken effect, so Eldred flew to Toronto until the paperwork was complete.

"To go through what he did to get here," Sawvel said, "that showed us he wants to be here."

The Gophers are glad he is. Eldred got better as camp went on, then won the starting job in the season opener after dropping a pair of punts inside the 20-yard line.

The 20-year-old sophomore has the quickest kick of any Minnesota punter, Sawvel said, "so protection-wise, you're pretty comfortable that he can get the ball out in any situation."

He also has a gift for hang time; in Saturday's game against New Hampshire, Eldred punted four times, all four into the wind, and produced three fair catches and one ball allowed to roll an extra 15 yards.

"Nobody says he has to kick it 60 yards. Saturday, we had net punting of 42 yards [per kick]," Sawvel said. "If we do that consistently through the year, we'd be a top 10 punting team."

And an eHarmony success story.

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