Until a few months ago, the only thing tying Tuscaloosa to Australia was the Outback Steakhouse down Highway 69. That changed when the Crimson Tide received a commitment from James Burnip, a 20-year-old Australian punter who has yet to play a down of American football.
Burnip comes to Alabama from the renowned Prokick Australia, a program that has produced five Ray Guy Award winners since its founding in 2007. The Mount Macedon, Victoria native has been working with punting coach Nathan Chapman the past year and a half after originally beginning his career as an Australian football player.
Saturday, Burnip’s rocket right leg will be unveiled for the first time stateside as he takes the field inside Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium as Alabama’s first-team punter. Roughly 10,000 miles away from home, the Tide’s new Aussie sensation is looking to put on a show.
“I think he’s going to be very solid for them,” Chapman said. “He’s got plenty of power at his disposal. He can do a range of different kicks if required. He’s got the ability to get himself out of trouble if the snap goes awry, so there’s some instinct there to be able to move and kick around the corner.
“He’s certainly got a powerful leg to sit in the pocket and get plenty of hang time if that’s what is required. You have someone who absolutely has the ability to flip the field.”
Burnip’s journey to the Deep South was originally set to begin in Oxford, Miss. Formerly a member of the 2022 class, he committed to Ole Miss in January and was set to join the Rebels next year on a three-year scholarship. However, plans changed over the summer as Alabama offered him an additional year and the opportunity to join the team this summer. From there, Burnip reclassified to the 2021 class, announcing his flip from Ole Miss to Alabama in June.
The Tide’s interest in Burnip began with special teams analyst Johnathan Galante, who previously worked with Prokick Australia at Virginia Tech when the Hokies brought in Sydney, Australia native Oscar Bradburn in 2017. Galante didn’t request Burnip directly but rather reached out to the program with the qualifications Alabama was looking for in a punter. From there, Chapman played matchmaker.
“We often say this is like ordering a pizza,” Chapman said. “You tell us what you think you want to do, and we’ll deliver that product. But that product is probably going to have more things that you may explore down the track. We put them on their doorstep and let the coaches do their job.”
Nick Saban never saw Burnip in person, but after a few FaceTime calls and plenty of film, the head coach was intrigued enough to extend an opportunity to join the team. Saban has toyed with the idea of bringing in an Australian punter for quite some time. In 2018, he worked out a dozen Aussie punters before ultimately electing to sign Skyler DeLong, who has since departed the program after two lackluster seasons.
During the 2018 game against Texas A&M, Alabama even experimented with DeLong trying out an abbreviated version of the rugby-style punts often performed by Australian punters. Saban was asked about it during his radio show the following week, and while he noted a few of the advantages the style brings, he was quick to point out that he had no plans of changing the team’s approach to punting.
The situation might be a bit different with Burnip, who is comfortable performing an array of kicks on top of the traditional punt. However, Saban isn’t ready to publicly commit to that decision just yet.
Saban already seems irritated by the exotification of his newest special teams addition this fall. While it’s true Burnip has yet to suit up for an American football game, his head coach is quick to point out that “he didn’t come from the rugby field” and has plenty of experience punting a football.
“And really, we’re not asking him to play football,” Saban said bluntly following Alabama’s first fall scrimmage last month. “We’re asking him to punt it.”
That shouldn’t be an issue.
While Saban joked about acclimating Burnip by sending him to rugby practice last week, the punter’s athletic background is in a sport that requires far more kicking. Australian football, or “footy” as it is commonly called, is a mixture of basketball, rugby and soccer.
The sport is played on an oval-shaped field roughly 135-185 meters long and 110-155 meters wide, 20 meters longer and more than twice the width of an American football field. Scoring is done by kicking the egg-shaped ball through the four goalposts with the inner two being worth six points and the outer two worth one point.
Passing can be done by punching the ball forward volleyball style or, more commonly, by kicking it to a teammate. The latter is where Burnip’s kicking ability stems from. With the accuracy of a quarterback, Australian footballers are able to ping balls out to teammates, hitting them in stride from 50 yards away.
How that skill translates over to the football field likely depends on how much trust Saban is willing to instill in his new punter.
According to Chapman, Burnip’s best hang time is between 5.3 and 5.4 seconds. Strictly going for distance, he’s seen the punter boot the ball as far as 65 yards in the air. Although to unlock Burnip’s true value, you have to let him reach into his bag of tricks.
The 6-foot-6, 216-pounder has the ability to deliver kicks while running to both his left and right. He can put topspin on low kicks, sending the ball rattling unpredictably down the field, or provide a backspin on balls to pin opponents at the goal line.
Last season, Alabama ranked No. 118 of 127 Division I teams averaging just 38 yards per punt. When it comes to Burnip improving the Tide’s production this year, Chapman brushes aside entry-level expectations such as those with the confident candor of Paul Hogan from the film Crocodile Dundee.
That’s not a punt. THAT’s a punt.
“He’ll be able to do anything they ask,” Chapman said. “We would like to think he’s going to be pretty precise. It’s not really inside-the-20 kicks with him. It’s more like putting it on the 5-yard line and having the ability to place it where he needs it.”
When asked about Burnip’s arsenal of kicks last week, Saban acknowledged that the Australian “does have a variety of ways he can punt the ball, and he’s pretty effective at it.” However, the head coach remained unclear as to whether he’d allow Burnip to fully utilize his repertoire. According to Chapman, once he does there’ll be no going back.
“There’s a skill there depending on what the coaches want to use,” Chapman said. “If they want to get creative, there’s probably nothing that he can’t do. If they want to keep it simple and just use him in the pocket, no worries. But once they open up the box of tools and see what’s in there, they’ve got more at their disposal than they will have ever had.”
While Alabama gets more familiar with its new special teams weapon, Burnip is facing his own acclimation period as he prepares himself for college football in the Deep South.
Before arriving in Tuscaloosa, the punter chatted with fellow Australian Jesse Williams, who played defensive line for Alabama from 2011-12. Williams spoke highly of the Crimson Tide community while providing a few pointers to his fellow countryman on how to adapt to his new surroundings. Still, the change in hemispheres comes with plenty of challenges.
For starters, the heat takes some getting used to. Upon arriving on campus in July, Burnip traded a cool Australian winter for Tuscaloosa’s dog days of summer. The 15-hour time difference is also difficult to overcome.
“It took him two weeks. The guy couldn’t sleep because the time differences were so bad,” Saban said during his weekly radio show Thursday night. “I was scratching my head and saying, ‘What did we do here?’
“But once he got acclimated and started sleeping and all that, we started to see how well he could really do. We think he’ll be really good.”
Burnip’s biggest cultural shock figures to come in the sheer enormity of SEC football. Prokick Australia does its best to mimic the challenges of kicking in front of big crowds, subjecting its punters to a series of pressure tests with penalties for botched kicks. Although, Chapman admits there’s nothing he or his team of coaches can do to fully replicate the roar of a stadium full of screaming fans.
That’s the setting Burnip will experience Saturday as Mercedes-Benz Stadium will open its overflow seating sections to accommodate 75,000 fans for Alabama’s opener against Miami. Chapman is confident those wearing crimson and white won’t come away disappointed as the Tide’s new Aussie attraction takes the stage for the first time.
“We didn’t just send him over to see how it’d go and see if he had the ability,” Chapman said. “We know he has the ability. We sent him over to demand by his performance that he starts. When he kicks the ball, he’s going to command that everyone look at him and take notice.”