WINSTON-SALEM — The most natural thing Alex Kinal does is drop an oblong ball onto his kicking foot, launching the projectile with power and accuracy.
Here's what's not natural: Pads. And a helmet. And a center long-snapping the ball between his legs, setting off an intricate set of movements.
For as long as he can remember, Kinal has been an Australian-rules footballer. Now he's a freshman punter for Wake Forest, in what should be a fascinating cultural exchange. Kinal's college football career starts Thursday night, when the Deacons open at Syracuse.
Like most stories about risk, this one starts with a sense of necessity: The Deacons' only option for a punter this winter was a walk-on who was lucky to kick the ball 25 yards. They needed a quick solution, and it seemingly arrived via the Internet.
Kinal, 21, from Adelaide, South Australia, had a homemade video of himself punting footballs in a helmet and pads. He posted it on the web and emailed links to every U.S. college program he could find.
When Wake Forest assistant Billy Mitchell told coach Jim Grobe, "You've got to take a look at this! I've never seen anything like it," Grobe came running down the hall.
Kinal was punting the ball with such hang time, the Deacons coaches wondered if something was doctored: Was the ball filled with helium? Was it a Nerf ball? Had the video been rigged? They called a friend with the Ray Guy punting academy. A few phone calls later, the punting specialist vouched for Kinal as a gifted, if raw, prospect. That was good enough to prompt a visit and, eventually, a scholarship offer.
There's no doubt Kinal has the physical tools; he's 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds with an explosive leg. The issue is punting mechanics for a kid who had never kicked an American-style football before last April.
"He was shaking so bad the first time (he took a long snap), I didn't know if he'd catch the ball," Grobe said. "He's never played the sport. Even putting on the uniform is brand new. We've never before had a kid who's really a first-time football player."
And yet, this experiment is consistent with Grobe's approach from the time he took this job in 2001. He said Wake Forest can't do things just like the big state schools and expect to succeed.
Tactically, that means running a misdirection offense that benefits high-IQ players of limited size and speed. And in terms of recruiting, it means taking a chance on a former bartender/construction worker from South Australia, transitioning from one sport to another.
Kinal's accuracy shouldn't be an issue. Punts serve as passes to teammates in the Australian-rules game, so he is used to kicking with precision. But it's harder to punt an American football for height and distance.
"The ball we kick (in Australia) is longer, wider, more rounded at the end. So it's easier to hit the sweet spot on that ball," Kinal said. "With an American ball, you've got to be spot-on."
The helmet and pads were even more foreign, since Australian footballers wear none of that.
Yet it didn't take long for Kinal to understand the necessity of all the gear.
"I'm one of the bigger guys out there" he said of Australia. "These guys are so massive, we'd all be getting knocked out," in the absence of padding.
Kinal does not shy away from collisions, however. During his recruiting visit, he proudly told Grobe he'd been knocked unconscious six times back in Australia.
"I promised him we'd try not to let him get knocked out that many times with us."