Growing up in Perth on Australia's southwest coast, Mark Crawford played both Australian Rules Football and cricket, two of his country's passions. His first exposure to American football came on Feb. 2, 2014, at age 20.
"Russell Wilson smashed the Denver Broncos, and I became a Seahawk moving forward,'' Crawford said of Seattle's 43-8 romp in Super Bowl XLVII. "… The way he went about it, it inspired me a little bit.''
Little did Crawford know at the time that he'd eventually embark on a football journey that would take him half a world away.
Crawford, an affable 28-year-old, is entering his third season as the Gophers starting punter as the opening week of training camp continues. He came on strong in 2021, averaging 41.7 yards on his 47 punts, placing 24 inside the opponent's 20-yard line and booming six 50 yards or more.
Crawford is part of a growing number of Australians who are excelling as punters in American football. He's an alum of Prokick Australia, a Melbourne-based program that started in 2007 and as of January had 190 players awarded football scholarships at various levels. Last year, 56 Prokick alums dotted the rosters of the 130 FBS programs. In the Big Ten, seven of the 14 schools have Prokick alums on their 2022 rosters.
"Ideally, we want the Big Ten Takeover, which is where we get all the punters in the Big Ten to be Australian,'' Crawford said. "But that's obviously a big ambition.'' Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio State, Purdue and Rutgers join the Gophers with Prokick punters on their rosters.
Crawford, immersed in the Gophers' rivalries, was quick to add, "I wouldn't want to give one to Wisconsin, though.''
Taking a flier, and a long flight
Crawford gave Prokick a try on the urging of Max Duffy, a fellow Perth native who had a standout career at Kentucky.
"One thing led to another, and I guess I had an opportunity to kick a few footballs,'' Crawford said. "… I thought, 'What harm can there be? I'll give it a crack.' And then within a couple of sessions, a few schools were pretty interested, and one was Minnesota and I never looked back.''
Crawford arrived on campus in January 2020 after a 33-hour, three-flight journey from Perth. A couple of months later, COVID-19 concerns shut everything down, so Crawford improvised.
"All of the facilities were shut down, so I got to punt at the park up the road,'' he said.
Last year, Crawford and special teams ace Phillip Howard became adept at pinning opponents inside their 20-yard line, a great field-position weapon for the Gophers. Minnesota's punt coverage gave up an average of 2.1 yards on 10 returns, ranking fifth best in the nation.
"Those coffin-corner punts are quite fun,'' Crawford said. "I quite like a challenge of having [to] place it. It's more like a pass. I tried to pass it to Phil Howard and whoever is going to be down there this year.''
A Vikings connection
Crawford is friends with Vikings punter Jordan Berry, a fellow Australian and early alum of Prokick. Berry is proud of what the program has provided to those seeking scholarships on U.S. teams.
"There's just so many guys that it's hard to keep track of how everybody's doing,'' Berry said of the Australians in college and pro football. "We have about 50, 60 guys over here, so it's wild.''
Berry, who played at Eastern Kentucky, sees Prokick alums maturing as punters.
"Guys are coming over in a lot more well-rounded state than the early days,'' he said from Vikings training camp in Eagan. "… Having that path has helped move guys through.''
The standout of the current group of Australian punters is Rutgers senior Adam Korsak, a second-team All-America selection last season. The Melbourne native averaged 45.8 yards on his 72 punts last year, and the Scarlet Knights' net punting average of 45.25 was a single-season FBS record.
“Ideally, we want the Big Ten Takeover, which is where we get all the punters in the Big Ten to be Australian. ... I wouldn't want to give one to Wisconsin, though.”
Korsak has yet to meet Crawford but is eager to face his countryman when Rutgers visits the Gophers on Oct. 29. "We do go back and forth a little bit on texts,'' said Korsak, who represented Rutgers at Big Ten media days in Indianapolis. "He's done such a great job for them.''
Crawford said there's some good-natured trash talk among the Big Ten's Aussie punters.
"We all sort of know each other and give each other a bit of wit every now and then,'' he said. "Some of them say, 'OK, I'll kick it further than you.' I'll say, 'I'll do what's best for my team. I'm a team-oriented character.' ''
Staff writer Andrew Krammer contributed to this story.
Three open practices
The Gophers will hold three training camp practices that will be free and open to the public. Along with Saturday's 2 p.m. F.A.M.I.L.Y. Day event at Huntington Bank Stadium that previously was announced, Gophers practices at 7:45 p.m. Aug. 11 at the stadium and 4:15 p.m. Aug. 15 at the Athletes Village also will be open.