CHAMPAIGN — It’s tough to think about picking a most valuable player off a football team that has lost six straight and might finish the season with 10 consecutive losses.
But recent mentions on social media indicate the people’s choice as MVP of the University of Illinois football team is a left-footed Australian who until September had never played American football and on Saturday saw snow for the first time.
Blake Hayes, the 6-foot-6, 230-pound freshman from Melbourne, has played so well that sparse Illini crowds cheer his arrival onto the field when it’s time for the Illini to relinquish possession of the ball. There’s an appreciation for players who do their job and Hayes has done his.
Hayes ranks third in FBS punting average (41.8) among true freshmen. He ranks third in Big Ten punting average (43.5) and six of his 40 punts have traveled more than 50 yards, including a career-best of 59 recently against Minnesota.
His steady performance, which includes 12 punts inside the 20-yard line, has been noticed in repeated Tweets with the hashtag #BlakeHayesForMVP.
“I’ve seen a couple of those but I think there are others on the team doing a far better job,” Hayes said.
Hayes played Australian rules football back home but got involved with a group called ProKick Australia, which aims to develop college kickers while hooking them up with American schools.
The group is run by former NFL specialists Nathan Chapman and John Smith. Illini special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky worked through ProKick Australia to find Hayes.
Once Chapman and Smith convinced Ligashesky that Hayes could do the job, Ligashesky flew to Australia to evaluate him before offering a scholarship. A coach doesn’t take a recruiting trip to Australia unless there’s virtual certainty this is a match.
Hayes said he picked Illinois primarily for its academics, but based on his early success this season coaches believe he’ll have a legitimate chance to get an NFL tryout at some point.
He already has a reputation for extreme modesty. Hayes credits his protection, his coverage team and his coaches for the kicking success and says Ligashesky has helped by being accommodating when Hayes wants to try something in a game.
And while Hayes has learned the rules of the game, he admits he doesn’t know much about American football techniques or nuances.
“I really don’t watch too much of the game when it’s going on,” he said. “I’m usually warming up or staying in a (mental) zone.”
What he’d like to do is get in on the physical action. “I’d love to, to be honest,” Hayes said. “Playing Aussie rules football back home, there’s a lot of physical stuff without pads. But I don’t think the coaches want me to get injured and I probably don’t know how to tackle properly, so…”
Hayes was wide-eyed when it began snowing prior to last week’s game against Wisconsin.
“It’s the first time I’d ever seen snow in my life and it was pretty cool,” he said. “As a punter, you probably don’t want snow during a game, but it was awesome pregame. My dad had never seen snow, either.”
Hayes’ dad, Roman Hayes, is a general manager for a home furnishing company. He had business in China and decided to stop in Champaign on his way back to Australia. He was in the stands against the Badgers and not knowing the rules of the game, he simply rooted for fourth down because that’s when his son comes onto the field.
“This was his first time to watch me play and I’m not sure what he’ll say,” Hayes said immediately after the Wisconsin game. “He doesn’t know too much about what’s a good punt or a bad punt. He likes to think if it goes far and high, it’s a good punt. That’s OK. It’s awesome having him here.”
Hayes said he has been working some on his passing abilities, just in case he’s asked to throw the ball on some kind of punt fake.
“I didn’t grown up throwing,” he said. “A lot of guys make fun of my throwing.”
Notes: The Indiana at Illinois game on Nov. 11 will kick off at 11 a.m. and will be televised on the Big Ten Network. Game times have not been set on the road game with Ohio State on Nov. 18 and the home game in the season finale with Northwestern on Nov. 25.