The United States and Australia might speak the same language, but the vernacular is different. Words and phrases can hold different meanings, something Virginia Tech punter Oscar Bradburn learned quite quickly.
Bradburn, who was raised in Sydney, enrolled at Virginia Tech for spring semester and immediately got a humorous lesson in common American phrases. Bradburn asked a female classmate for a “rubber” which is Australian slang for an eraser. The girl was rather taken aback by Bradburn’s question.
“It raised a few eyebrows when I said that,” Bradburn joked.
American slang and vernacular isn’t the only thing Bradburn must get used to. With Virginia Tech’s season-opener just months away, Bradburn has to familiarize himself with American football, which bears little resemblance to Aussie Rules football.
“It’s a completely different sport,” Bradburn said. “Aussie Rules is played on a much larger oval, different ball type, heavier ball. It’s made out of kangaroo leather actually, so that’s a very domestic thing.”
Bradburn had no experience with the American game until he was 18, when he decided to move to Melbourne, Australia to train at the Prokick Australia camp, which has put multiple punters in the NFL and plenty more in the collegiate ranks. Bradburn was invited by Nathan Chapman, who saw Bradburn’s potential.
“I went to a camp of his, he evaluated how I was going, sort of the strength I have in my leg and how consistent I could get,” Bradburn said. “From there, he invited me to move down to Melbourne and start training with him and John Smith at Prokick Australia.”
Bradburn started training at Prokick in January 2016, and began receiving interest from multiple schools. He visited the United States in July, and felt comfortable at Virginia Tech.
“Mom’s a bit like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ She was definitely a bit questioning of whether or not I should go, but I think she now realizes that it’s an amazing opportunity,” Bradburn said.
Fortunately for Bradburn, Special Teams Coordinator James Shibest has plenty of experience with Australian punters. Shibest coached Tom Hornsey while at Memphis, who won the Ray Guy Award in 2013.
“I just know from dealing with these guys before, they’re extremely competitive,” Shibest said. “Just through the way they’re brought up playing Australian rules football. That’s what I’ve liked the most, and we’ve had success with it.”
Now that Bradburn has had the chance to practice a couple of times, he’s impressing players and coaches with his consistency.
“He is consistent as can be, which in the kicking game, that’s what you need to be. You need to be consistent,” said kicker Joey Slye. “That’s where your morals lie. With him being consistent as he is now, I don’t think it’s going to be problem going to gametime.”
He might be consistent, but Bradburn is still adjusting to the American game. Last Tuesday, when Virginia Tech began their spring practice schedule, Bradburn told Slye that was the first time he had a line of rushers coming after him.
“In Aussie Rules, there is a rush. It’s 360 (degrees) all the time, so you’re surrounded by people trying to tackle you and stuff,” Bradburn said. “That was the first time that I had stood in front of a line of people and with a rushing line as well. It was a little bit to get used to, but that’s with a lot of things now that I’ve moved here.”
“The great thing is that he’s here now and not in the fall,” Shibest said. “That was a big part of this too, that he was a guy that could come at the semester.”
Bradburn is expected to be the starting punter next season, so he’s got plenty of work to do. But Bradburn, nor Shibest, seem worried.
“We’re thrilled to have him,” Shibest said. “We haven’t had a lot of time with him yet, but from what we’ve seen so far, he’s very, very promising. We’re very excited about him.”
Slye hoping to further range, become vocal leader
Bradburn isn’t the only specialist with room to improve. Slye, who’s entering his senior season, has been automatic for Virginia Tech inside 40 yards. However, Slye’s numbers begin to dip once you move further out. Slye is 18-28 in his career on field goal attempts from 40-49 yards away, and is 0-8 on attempts of 50 yards or more.
“I’ll go out there, and I’ll hit balls all day, and I can make from anywhere on the field that I feel like I can,” Slye said. “The stars haven’t been aligned in some of those cases. I know I can make it, there’s never a doubt when I run out there, ‘Oh, why is coach sending me out here for this situation?’ He’s also had the confidence in me to do things like that.”
“We haven’t missed by much,” Shibest said. “He’s got plenty of leg. To me, it’s a confidence issue that we’ve got to overcome.”
While Slye tries to extend his range, he’s also made an effort to become a vocal leader on the team this season.
“Coach Fuente last year talked again and again and again how important the seniors were to the program — Sam Rogers, Ken Ekanem, Chuck Clark, just to name a few,” Slye said. “Not that I want him to praise our senior class like he did last year, but I wanted it to be them passing the torch to us, for our senior class, to make sure we don’t drop that ball as seniors.”
Kickers aren’t normally vocal leaders, but Slye isn’t your normal kicker. At 5-foot-11 and 210-pounds, Slye looks more like a linebacker than a specialist. He also earned a Hard Hat for his work in winter workouts.
“He’s not afraid to speak up, and he’s done a great job and I want to empower him to do that,” Fuente said of Slye. “I don’t think he needs to worry about what position he plays to be a leader.”
Virginia Tech searching for ‘supporting cast’
On the offensive side of the ball, don’t expect news on the quarterback front anytime soon. Fuente and his coaches are still in the evaluation phase, and won’t rush a decision on who will start. For now, Josh Jackson, AJ Bush and Hendon Hooker are continuing to share a majority of first-team reps.
“I like the way they’ve gone to work in the first three days,” Fuente said. “I think there’s some talent there.”
What Fuente said next might be the biggest problem facing Virginia Tech this offseason.
“I’m much more concerned about the supporting cast, I can tell you that much,” Fuente said. “I really like the way those three kids have worked, and I still don’t know who it’s going to be or any of that stuff, but to me, we’ll figure out who’s going to start and all that sort of stuff, but we’ve got to find some guys to play alongside them. My biggest concern is that we’ll find somebody to play quarterback and we won’t be good enough around them to kind of highlight their skill set. Last year, we didn’t have that problem.”
One of the youths hoping to secure a spot in the supporting cast is receiver Eric Kumah. After playing in a limited fashion last season, Kumah feels much more ready to take on a big role. He said he’s tried to take bits from Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges, as well as Cam Phillips, who is still on the team.
“I’m way more ready because I feel like I’m more mature now since I’ve been here,” Kumah said. “I learned a lot from great guys like Isaiah and Bucky (Hodges), and Cam is still here to help mentor me. He’s like an older brother to me, so I feel like I’m ready.”
“Eric has done a good job of being consistent,” Fuente said. “He’s continued to plug away on a daily basis. He’s an intelligent guy, you can move him around and we’ll continue to do that throughout the spring.”
At tight end, Virginia Tech is hoping Chris Cunningham and Colt Pettit continue to develop. Pettit, who moved off the offensive line to tight end midway through last season, looked much slimmer at the open portion of Virginia Tech’s practice last week. Still, he’ll serve in more of a blocking role this upcoming season.
“He’s there to block people, so,” Shibest said. “I told him the other day, ‘You got to wash them guys down and get after them to help this team.’ He thinks he’s a dang receiver, I said, ‘We’re not going that direction right now. We need you to get in there and smash some guys.’ He is running around better and looks better.”
Cunningham got off to a hot start last season, catching three touchdowns in the first nine games of 2016. However, he didn’t record another catch until December, when he caught a touchdown pass vs. Arkansas in the Belk Bowl.
“You see glimpses of a guy that can do everything that we’re asking for,” Shibest said. “He’s just got to continue to grow and gain some confidence that he’s going to go out there and win each rep.”
Another name to watch at tight end is Dalton Keene, a true-freshman who also enrolled for this spring semester. Shibest said that Virginia Tech will need Keene, along with the other early enrollees, to play a big role this season.
“He’s just a tough kid,” Shibest said. “We knew that when we signed him. Coach (Charley) Wiles knew his dad, you could just see the bloodlines and how it worked. He looks a little raw, he’s almost like a newborn giraffe out there, the way he moves at times, but God he’s strong, he’s athletic and we’re going to need him. We’re going to need the new guys that we did sign this year, and it’s awesome he’s here early.”
Shegog excited about move to Backer
Defensively, Virginia Tech is switching guys around to create more depth and experience. These experiments are taking place all over, especially at linebacker, where redshirt-senior Anthony Shegog is moving from Whip to Backer. Shegog was the backup to Mook Reynolds at Whip last season, and also was the Bandit, or the sixth defensive back, in Virginia Tech’s equivalent of a dime package.
“A lot of it transitions over,” Shegog said. “It’s still tough, because I’m not used to being in the run gaps and the correct fits, but it’s going well.”
Changing positions isn’t a foreign concept to Shegog, who is now working at his third position while at Virginia Tech. Shegog started as a safety before moving to the Whip position.
“I enjoy the challenge,” Shegog said. “He’s trying to challenge me, because he knows I’m better than I may have been performing at some points.”
As of now, Shegog is working entirely at Backer, but hopes to retain his spot at Bandit.
“I really enjoy that position,” Shegog said. “It’s different. It’s not technically a starting role, but it’s a starting role. I’ll be happy to go wherever they need me.”
Other news and notes
Virginia Tech confirmed last week that redshirt-sophomore Houshun Gaines would be held out of spring ball for academic reasons. Gaines is expected to rejoin the team after the semester, but it leaves the Hokies even more thin at defensive end. For now, Emmanuel Belmar, Xavier Burke, Raymon Minor and Jimmie Taylor are getting just about all the reps at defensive end.
“It’s been good, but we’ve only practiced one time in anything other than pajamas,” Fuente said. “We haven’t hit the grind of where you really worry about that sort of stuff, but we will.”
With Greg Stroman and CJ Carroll out for spring practices due to injury, Virginia Tech is working multiple guys at punt and kick returner, including newcomers Kalil Pimpleton and Caleb Farley.
“We feel great about them (Stroman and Carroll),” Shibest said. “There’s some younger guys here, (Kalil) Pimpleton and Caleb Farley, and I’m hoping some more guys coming too in the fall. Being able to get a good nucleus of guys there, not just for next year, but as we grow into the future a little bit.”
Khalil Ladler is currently working behind Reggie Floyd at rover. Ladler, who redshirted last season, will compete with Floyd and Devon Hunter at rover, once Hunter enrolls over the summer.