Taking a punt: Ex-Tigers learning a whole new ballgame

Ex-Tigers taking a punt at college (2:09)

Former Richmond Tigers Ben Lennon and Ben Griffiths talk to ESPN about their move from professional Aussie rules to college football. (2:09)

MELBOURNE -- Ben Griffiths and Ben Lennon have gone through a lot together in the past year.

Just over 12 months ago, they were hoping to break into the Richmond Tigers' team that was on course for a drought-breaking AFL Grand Final victory. Neither was able to break into the all-conquering lineup. In the following off-season, Lennon was cut by the Tigers, while Griffiths retired due to concussion and injury concerns.

Now they're both learning a completely new sport after swapping Australian rules football for American football. According to Lennon and Griffiths, they've both verbally committed to scholarships to Pac-12 schools: Griffiths with the University of Southern California (USC) and Lennon with the University of Utah. Their scholarships are for the 2019 college season, and as transfer students, both will enjoy four years of eligibility at their respective universities.

Before they head to the U.S., they have a year to transition from a sport they'd grown up with to one they know little about.

Griffiths and Lennon had promising junior Aussie rules careers. Lennon, 23, was a first-round draft pick in 2013. Able to play through the forward line and midfield, Lennon was struck down by a shoulder injury through 2016 and found it difficult to play consistently at the top level as Richmond grew into one of the best teams in the league. He managed just 21 games in four years before being delisted at the end of the 2017 season.

Griffiths, 27, was a second-round pick in 2009. A promising key forward, he managed 63 games at the top level but retired in January 2018.

Now the pair is training with Prokick Australia -- an Australian-based kicking academy run by ex-AFL player and NFL punter Nathan Chapman, with ex-NFL and CFL placekicker John Smith. Chapman and Smith have been tasked with transforming the pair into punters in a short space of time.

"Both guys have adapted really well, but now need to understand the specifics around the game. They are continuously learning that so much rides on one kick and that they constantly need to make it difficult for the punt returner," Chapman tells ESPN.

The Prokick program -- Griffiths and Lennon pay for the training services -- means the duo still train in an elite environment, with an emphasis on building their leg muscles.

"We do three kicking sessions a week and two gym sessions a week," Lennon, 23, tells ESPN when describing a typical week's training. "It's not as strenuous as AFL, but we are kicking 250 balls a week."

Transforming from an almost continuous, 360-degree, aerobic-based sport to punting isn't just about learning to kick a different ball, however. Wearing pads and helmets, adjusting to the stop-start nature of the sport and focusing on making it hard for the punt-returner to catch a kick are some of the lessons Chapman is trying to impart on his new students.

Lennon admits he still has a long way to go.

"I've really enjoyed the transition; I compare it to golf at the moment - I hit (kick) one good one (spiral) and the next is average, so [I am] still working on that consistency, but I'm really enjoying the game," Lennon says.

While they both have much to improve on, their teachers have gone through this process with much success in the past.

Prokick Australia is starting to make waves in the U.S. as a breeding ground for punters in the College system and even the NFL. Australian punters who have come through the Prokick system have won the Ray Guy Award -- which honours College Football's top-performing punter -- every year since 2013: Cameron Johnston, Tom Hackett, Tom Hornsey, Mitch Wishnowski and Michael Dickson. Johnston is now the starting punter at the Philadelphia Eagles. Hackett was signed by the New York Jets in 2016, Hornsey spent time with the Dallas Cowboys while Dickson is generating a huge amount of fanfare at the Seattle Seahawks.

All have a common denominator - they all played Australian rules football as youngsters before making the transition to American football.

"Transitioning from Australian rules to gridiron - you need to understand how it unfolds in reality," Chapman tells ESPN.

"In Australian rules, you are able to kick an average ball and follow up with an amazing tackle and everyone forgets the bad kick. But changing to American football, it's an isolated kick that everyone looks at, and as the punter you need to understand where you are and where your gunners are, where the punt returner is, and what type of kick is required for your team in a certain situation.

"Both [Griffiths and Lennon] were very talented coming out of the AFL system, and the way Utah and USC found their new punters is a system becoming more popular around Special Teams Coaches [which is] finding a punter from Down Under. We [Prokick] are at the stage now where we've developed a network of coaches in College Football, and the coaches of each program tell us what type of guy they are looking for, and in the case of these two (Lennon and Griffiths), the timing was perfect (both schools need to replace outgoing senior punters for season 2019)."


Where would these Tigers play in the NFL?

Ben Griffiths and Ben Lennon weigh in on where their former Richmond teammates would line up in the NFL.

As part of their program, Griffiths and Lennon enjoyed a hefty road trip through the United States earlier this year. The journey showcased the College environments at University of Kentucky and USC, and the surroundings they'll expect once they arrive in California and Utah.

Griffiths has followed the journeys of other Australian punters and kickers in the U.S. including Johnston and Dickson as well as fellow AFL converts Max Duffy at Kentucky and Arryn Siposs at Auburn. The 198cm, 99kg Griffiths also spent time with his coaches at USC discussing the plan going forward, expectations and getting to know some of his future teammates.

"The best part [of the trip] was seeing where all the Aussie boys are over there and how proud they were to show us around each Uni, regardless of what division they were in," Griffiths tells ESPN.

The Pittsburgh Steelers also gained two new Australian supporters, as Griffiths and Lennon spent time training with and learning from starting punter and countryman Jordan Berry, another Prokick graduate. Chapman introduced the Steelers punter to the pair, who gave them a valuable insight into playing the game at the top level and what College would be like after attending Eastern Kentucky University from 2009 to 2013.

"We spent a bit of time with 'Jordo' - it's pretty cool to be able to train and then hang out with him, and then actually see him play in the NFL," Lennon tells ESPN, with Griffiths adding: "Just following him, it's pretty cool when you go over there and he's an Aussie in the (NFL) system, it inspires you to work a bit harder and get good grades."

There was also ample opportunity to learn a bit of the American way of life during their trip, especially the culinary side of the equation.

"We tested out a few menus and came back a little bit porky!" Lennon laughs. "But the difference between [American football] and AFL is you don't have to get your skinfolds (a test commonly used in elite Australian rules football players that determines an athlete's body fat percentage) every two weeks - you can put on a little bit of weight, but you obviously want to maintain a professional bodyweight."

It's obvious the former AFL players still have much to learn about American football. But requirements must also be met academically. Given Griffiths and Lennon were drafted by Richmond straight out of high school at 18 and thrust into a professional sporting program, studying in a full-time capacity was not an option. The academic requirements in the NCAA system mean both men need to increase their Grade Point Average (GPA) to be accepted initially into their respective schools. Following on from being accepted, both will need to continue meeting requirements from their schools, the Pac-12 as well as NCAA Eligibility Regulations to continue being a student athlete.

"We had to do two semesters in order to transfer over - it's different for every school but at Utah you have to get a 2.6 GPA to transfer," Lennon says. Both are currently studying hard at Swinburne University in Melbourne, in addition to their training loads.

The duo will continue to practise with Prokick Australia until early January, before they fly across the Pacific Ocean and settle in at USC and Utah respectively. They're hoping to adjust to the conditions, study requirements and spring training loads before their College Football careers begin in August, 2019.

The pair will also have their eyes on the 2018 College Football season, specifically the Pac-12 matchup between USC and Utah on October 20 - a contest that could have Griffiths and Lennon competing against each other this time next year.

"We'll probably watch it together, that will be pretty cool," Griffiths says.