The stakes were simple enough. Everything was riding on the left foot of Daniel Pasquariello.
Penn State’s punter had to launch the football at least 40 yards high and deep and achieve a four second hang-time. If he erred, or if his kick came up short, the rest of his teammates would have another dreaded wind sprint tacked onto the end of practice. More than a 100 of his teammates rallied around him, lining both sides of the team’s outdoor practice field cheering him on.
“C’mon Danny! We need you, we need you, we need you!”
The Australian lefty took the snap, dropped the ball and as it left his foot with a thump, it tumbled low and short. A dead duck. His teammates groaned. Pasquariello went nuts. He cursed himself, smacking his helmet in frustration as he waited for the next snap.
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“The first sign of enthusiasm or frustration from a personal standpoint that I’d ever seen from him,” special teams coach Charles Huff said, remembering the moment leading up to the Ohio State game. “The very next kick he kicked about a 63-yard bomb that the team erupted for. That’s kind of, okay, that’s who you are. You’ve got to repeat that.”
Since then, Pasquariello has locked down primary punting duties and has improved with every game. His average per punt has steadily increased since he punted four times for an average of 31.5 yards against Ohio State. Pasquariello averaged 36.8 yards against Maryland, 37.3 against Indiana and 38 yards per punt against Temple.
A few factors have helped the Aussie punter turn his game around. Namely, Penn State scrapped a directional punting system designed to corner opposing returners. Often earlier this season, Pasquariello and redshirt freshman Chris Gulla were hitting punts off the sides of their feet.
The emergence of speedy, instinctual gunners Grant Haley and Christian Campbell has given Huff and the rest of the coaching staff plenty of confidence that a simple, straight-forward punting scheme will suffice. It’s worked pretty well. The Nittany Lions are seventh nationally in punt coverage and are allowing a little more than five return yards per game.
Simplifying the scheme is only part of the bigger picture. Pasquariello has faced a major adjustment period and is still adapting to life in the United States.
A native of Melbourne, Australia, and former Aussie rules football player, Pasquariello trained with Nathan Chapman at Melbourne’s Prokick Australia, an academy that’s also turned out current Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston, Rutgers punter Tim Gleeson and Utah punter Tom Hackett. Pasquariello joined up with Chapman after Pasquariello and his parents saw Hackett — also a Melbourne native and family friend — move on to Utah and have success after training with Chapman.
Pasquariello worked out three days a week, often early, with Chapman for more than 12 months. Chapman and his staff had to first put some weight on the lanky punter so he’d be able to withstand the contact he could be exposed to in the American game.
“Month by month as we progressed through the techniques of punting and adding scenarios to him like, catching snaps from a Jugs machine, then wearing helmet and pads then having a simulated rush, he really did just get better and more comfortable,” Chapman said in an email to the Centre Daily Times.
Chapman said he continually monitors American college football teams and was very familiar with Penn State’s punting situation. The Nittany Lions had to replace longtime punter Alex Butterworth who graduated after last season.
When Huff arrived at Penn State in January, he immediately began searching for a punter to replace Butterworth and push Gulla for the starting job.
But Huff was limited due to the scholarship restrictions placed on Penn State following the sanctions the NCAA imposed on the program in 2012.
“We weren’t able to go out and say ‘Hey, we’re going to take the best punter in the country,’ because there were some other schools that offered those guys,” Huff said. “It’s tough to kind of convince a kid, ‘Hey, I know we can’t pay for your school but we want you to come anyway. We know there are some schools offering to pay.’”
So Huff began a search that extended thousands of miles away.
He had looked at other foreign kicking prospects in the past, and contacted Chapman, asking for a list of players Chapman felt were ready to transition to American football. Chapman followed up, sending Huff not only a list of players but also film on a few.
Although his highlight tape included him alone on a rugby field, kicking footballs fed to him by a machine rather than a longsnapper, Pasquariello stood out to Huff.
Huff tried to convince head coach James Franklin to send him to visit Pasquariello in Melbourne, but the visit never happened. Instead, the first time Huff met Pasquariello, it was at Penn State’s team complex on campus shortly before training camp began.
“When he first got here, the one thing we knew right away is he had a cannon for a leg,” Huff said. “He could crank the ball. The one thing that we did realize was physically, his body did not look like a college football player as a freshman.”
And Pasquariello wasn’t that familiar with American football. Before the team’s first training camp practice, he needed help figuring out what pads went where. Of course, his new teammates got a kick out of that.
They’ve also enjoyed how he’s acquired an American accent. He’ll switch between accents often to get a rise out of his teammates.
“In the locker room, he’s a funny guy,” senior defensive end C.J. Olaniyan said. “He has a nice personality, and he’s always out there playing soccer with us.”
Pasquariello also made a good first impression on head coach James Franklin when he showed up with gifts — two stuffed koala’s — for Franklin’s two young daughters. The koala is native to the southeastern tip of Australia where Pasquariello grew up.
For Pasquariello, he’s a long way from home but his teammates have helped him adjust. His parents have already visited State College a few times with both parents plus Pasquariello’s brother spending two weeks in town recently. Penn State’s policy on true freshmen prohibits them from speaking with reporters.
Last week his cousin visited and watched practices, where Pasquariello hit his marks again to keep his teammates from running.
“In Australia, I didn’t know this, most kids stay at home and go to the local university,” Franklin said. “They don’t live on campus. They live with their family and go to school and do it from home. So the funny thing is probably the biggest adjustment was on mom and dad, because it’s so unusual that your child leaves the home before maybe 21, 22 years old.”
Franklin said Pasquariello has adjusted well, especially over the last few weeks as he’s dialed in his punting craft.
“He’s been really good,” Franklin said. “The team has helped with that. We have a close-knit team and they’ve kind of embraced him. So I think he’s handled it really well. I think he’s handled it really well. I know for me running into that stadium for the first time was a crazy experience for him and his family to be in that stadium was even more of an amazing experience.”