Meet the Aussie rookie set to rock the NFL
Australian punters are no longer a secret in the NFL. But the latest rookie is already shaking things up after a huge highlight.
As NFL teams across the US finalise their preparations for the start of the 2019 season this weekend, one Aussie punter is not-so-quietly confident he'll make a splash with the resurgent San Francisco 49ers in his rookie year. West Australian product Mitch Wishnowsky admits he isn't totally across all the X's and O's in the complex 49ers playbook, but if there's one thing he does know, it's punting. And he plans to deliver for the 49ers faithful in his first year in the league. "As far as what I know about football, your guess is as good as mine, but I know the punt team is going to be pretty good," Wishnowsky told Wide World of Sports at 49ers training camp at Levi's Stadium. In the warm Santa Clara sun Wishnowsky is cool, calm and collected, readying himself for the start of the regular season with his 49ers coaches and teammates. While the Kyle Shanahan-coached offense continue to unlock their full potential in practice, Wishnowsky is purely focused on doing his job on special teams, perfecting his punting action with five-second-plus hang-time, and getting extra reps with his long snapper. "It's a little different to other positions because it's not two hours of constantly running and hitting each other, but it's still long days and lots of meetings," Wishnowsky said. "You wake up at your hotel room at 6am and you're back at 8.30pm. As a rookie you don't want to get anything wrong. You want to be on top of everything. You want to be on time. "So you're always sort of on edge. You're always looking at your phone, looking at the time, looking at film. It's tiring, but I'm lucky to just have to catch the ball and kick it. I can only imagine how exhausted the other boys are." Wishnowsky has settled right into life at the 49ers, and already established some close friendships with some of the bigger names in the team, such as $137.5m quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and four-time Pro Bowler Richard Sherman, with whom he had quite the carpool experience. "I speak to Jimmy [Garoppolo] quite a bit. I really get along with him," Wishnowsky said. "And I got a ride home with Richard [Sherman] the other day in his Tesla. They're everywhere around here in San Francisco. He showed me the 'Ludicrous Mode' to see how fast the Tesla goes. It was like you're in a rocket ship. It sucks you back in the seat. "But they're all great dudes. It's weird; you get into the locker room and just realise they're normal blokes." 49ERS IN AWE OF AUSSIE PUNTER'S CRUNCHING TACKLE https://twitter.com/OSf49ers/status/1162745394771611648 Wishnowsky said the special teams unit have also had his back in training camp as he adjusts to his new team. "All the specialists have taken me under their wing. Robbie [Gould, kicker], Kyle [Nelson, long snapper], Colin [Holba, long snapper], they're all good dudes and make sure I'm doing everything right," he said. "Robbie has been a big help especially. It's really nice to have a big-time vet. "First game you're about as nervous as it gets, and he's like, 'You're in the NFL, have fun, enjoy it, don't worry the whole time you're here'. "So it helps having someone like that who has been in this position, and they look at football as fun and go out there and encourage you to show what you can do, rather than be anxious." Wishnowsky might be in his rookie year, but he's essentially already a professional, having played four years at the University of Utah. He stacked up numerous accolades during his time there, including the Ray Guy Award, given to the best punter in college football. His 27 years also makes him older and perhaps more level-headed than most NFL rookies, having come to American football in his 20s via the Prokick Australia program, which trains, mentors and ultimately helps place Aussies on scholarship with the biggest schools in the USA. It was through that program run by former AFL player Nathan Chapman that Wishnowsky was able to take a sharp career turn from an Aussie Rules-loving tradie from Gosnells, to punting a pigskin in front of a Salt Lake City stadium filled with 50,000 fans. "I think Nathan Chapman has had the biggest impact on my punting," Wishnowsky said. "Even now, I'll spend a bit of time with him, and after just a couple of days you can really tell the difference. You can see why he's the best." 'SO MUCH RESPECT': 49ERS AUSSIE STUNS NFL https://twitter.com/thecheckdown/status/1101491042572853248 At Utah Wishnowsky perfected his craft and came out a top-ranked NFL punting prospect. Not only does the Aussie have a monster leg to put his team in strong field position when called upon, he also has size (188cm-tall, 100kg) and speed. At the NFL draft combine earlier this year Wishnowsky clocked a 4.63-second 40-yard dash time, putting him on par with some running backs. The 49ers general manager John Lynch and coach Shanahan saw the x-factor he could bring to San Francisco and didn't flinch. They drafted him in the fourth round, 110th overall to a four-year rookie contract worth $US3.28m ($A4.9m). It was an incredible compliment to Wishnowsky's talent, with specialists rarely taken so high in the NFL draft. https://twitter.com/ProkickAus/status/1124534085731225600 Even the Aussie, in tears while on the phone to Lynch at the time, had to pinch himself when his name was called out. "It was pretty unbelievable," Wishnowsky, a former glazier, said. "Fourth round was a bit of a surprise to me. I was around other guys that were expecting to get drafted and didn't get drafted. You just never know what's going to happen. "I was pretty emotional. I was with my girlfriend, now fiancée, and it was a cool, amazing moment." https://twitter.com/49ers/status/1122184524111077376 Wishnowsky plans to get married next year but for now he's solely determined to produce a rookie season worthy of his early selection in the draft. So far in preseason he's proved his worth not only with incredible punting distance (49.6 yard average, fourth-best in the league) and booming hang-time, but also in kick-offs and in his big play ability. Wishnowsky's crunching, textbook perfect tackle on a returner in San Francisco's preseason game against Denver had his teammates in awe declaring "Aussies don't f--- around" . "Punting in the NFL, if you can get a 45-yard net you're doing very well. So I've just been working on hang-time and more direction, to just limit the opportunities I give returners," Wishnowsky said. "If I get good hang-time I can make sure my coverage is able to get down there. It's about making sure they don't get any space for a return." Wishnowsky is not the only Australian in the NFL, with six other guys from Down Under playing in the league this season on 53-man rosters. Like Wishnowsky, three of those other Aussies are punters and alumni of the Prokick Australia program – Jordan Berry in Pittsburgh (AFC), Michael Dickson in Seattle (NFC) and Cameron Johnston in Philadelphia (NFC). Dickson and Johnston were both locked in a tense battle for a Pro Bowl nod last season, with the former claiming the honour in his rookie year after an extraordinary highlights reel made him an instant fan favourite in Seattle. As another punter in the same conference (NFC), Wishnowsky is set to challenge both Dickson and Johnston for a Pro Bowl spot if he can produce a similarly impressive rookie performance. "Seeing Dicko and Cam performing well, that helped me be drafted where I was," Wishnowsky said. "It proved that if you do different [as Aussies and our punting style], it can translate to the NFL." He said it's no accident that the men from Australia are rejuvenating the punting position with their electric play, from being able to make tackles, to run on fake punt plays, to be more instinctual and kick long and high, short and directional. "I think it comes down to playing Aussie Rules. If you do see something different ahead of us, we're used to getting the ball off quickly, jamming it off the boot," Wishnowsky said. "In college things like that can happen and you just find a way to react. We seem to have more of a peripheral vision when we punt, which can be a good thing, and it can be a bad thing. But when there's someone coming to block the ball, I feel we can be a bit more nifty with it." https://twitter.com/NinerAlex/status/1157037990532661248 Dickson delivered a few big plays last season, including a gutsy game-winning 9-yard rush from his own endzone. In college Wishnowsky had two successful fake punt plays too, good for 19 and 28-yards each, but he said he has "no idea" if 49ers coach Shanahan has drawn up any plans for the Aussie to repeat those feats in the NFL. "That's his realm," Wishnowsky said coyly. But you get the feeling with his frame, and his obvious ability to take – and make – hits, that he'd be more than up for the challenge.