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Meet Tom Hackett, the best prospect yet in Australia's NFL punter pipeline

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Whether the two-time Ray Guy Award winner gets drafted or not, he'll celebrate with beer and get back to work.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Last winter, Tom Hackett won his second straight Ray Guy Award, given annually to college football's best punter.

At the ceremony, ESPN's Chris Fowler asked Hackett about his football background.

Hackett responded, "The main reason I'm playing this sport is because deep down, I'm fat and I don't like running very far. So I'm running 20-odd yards on and 20-odd yards off, and that's about all I got for you."

Not even two weeks later, Hackett's Utah was facing rival BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. Hackett was standing at the back of a punting formation. But the Utes saw something they liked.

First down, Utah, on a 21-yard sprint by the guy who'd just said he doesn't like running. It was the fourth 20-yard fake punt run of his career.

Hackett insists he wasn't playing a long con on his team's bitterest rival.

"I guess, bottom line is, BYU didn't do their homework on that, and they didn't put enough numbers on their right side, our left side," Hackett told SB Nation this week. "I wasn't lying when I said I don't like to run. If there was someone a little bit faster, they probably would've housed it."

Hackett isn't running much now, as he prepares for April's NFL Draft as one of the most decorated punters in college history.

He does three or four punting workouts per week, booting the ball around for 30-some minutes at a time. In between, he works out in a gym to "make sure I'm staying in shape." He got a visit from his Australian punting coach the week before the NFL Scouting Combine, but Hackett isn't going nuts. It's "nothing crazy."

"Really, that's all I've been doing," Hackett said. "It hasn't been anything too tedious. It's actually a pretty good lifestyle right now."

Even by the cutthroat nature of the NFL, punting is a unique beast. There are only 32 jobs in the league, plus maybe a few practice squad bodies. Very few people could be the 33rd-best person in the entire world at a job and still wind up unable to find work, but that's a reality facing Hackett. He thinks this is a good year to be a punter, though, with about five teams in the market.

"The punting position's kind of down the bottom of the drawing board," he said. "I do think, however, this year to come out looks like good timing."

Hackett doesn't expect much will be easy. He's the consensus best punter on the board, but he claims his expectation is that he, like those other Aussie punters before him, won't get picked at all.

"You hear things. People tell you things. 'Oh, you're a fourth-round guy.' It doesn't really do anything to me, because the second I get expectations, generally that just makes it fall downhill," Hackett said.

"If I get drafted, sweet. I'll have a few beers to celebrate and then get back to work. If not, then I'll probably have a few beers and get back to work anyway."

Hackett's relaxed attitude toward the biggest professional development of his life is probably a reflection of how long his journey has been. He hails from Melbourne, at the southern edge of Australia. The country is not a hotbed for football prospects, despite the recent success of Aussie punters like the Steelers' Jordan Berry, the Giants' Brad Wing (who made an even more dramatic mark on college football with his own fake punt) and Memphis' Tom Hornsey.

He decided years ago he wanted to come to America to punt footballs, but it almost didn't work out.

In 2011, Hackett joined the program ProKick Australia, a punting and kicking academy designed to funnel some of the country's biggest legs toward American football. Eventually, then-Utah special teams coach Jay Hill (now the head coach at Weber State) found Hackett on YouTube. Hill conferred with head coach Kyle Whittingham and got on an airplane, then met with ProKick's founder, Nathan Chapman. Hackett got on-board and joined the Utes.

"They refused to offer me a scholarship back then. I didn't get one single offer, trying to get out here, because no one would offer me because I'd never played before," Hackett said. "So, that was fair enough, but looking back on it, I kind of wish I was getting a few more offers now."

Even once Hackett got to Salt Lake City, Whittingham and his staff weren't immediately all-in. That was problematic for Hackett's father, who still works in Australia and supports Hackett's three brothers and one sister. He'd need a scholarship.

"My dad said, 'If you can't get it within the year, you're coming home,'" Hackett said. "So I just clawed and scratched my way to get that paper."

One of Hackett's earliest orders of business at Utah was becoming invested in the Utes' rivalry with BYU. (Four years later, Hackett would get up on a stage at a pep rally and call the Cougars "bastards.")

"People tell you, 'Now that you play for Utah, you hate BYU.' I said, 'OK,' but I didn't really have anything behind that statement, so once you kind of get out there and see them, and the chit-chat starts," Hackett said. "When your teammate hates someone, generally you hate them, too, so that's really how it works."

After a season as the Utes' starting punter, Hackett got his scholarship. The next season, he improved his punting average from 38.9 yards to 43.4. It would rise to 46.7 and then 48 in his junior and senior seasons. He ended up with two consensus All-America bids and one 48-hour social media adventure as he tracked down a stolen car.

Hackett believes his success in college is important, because other Australians won't be able to make the jump without their countrymen putting together a strong track record.

Hackett isn't the first Australian to win a Ray Guy. That was Hornsey, the Memphis punter, who won it in 2013. Aussies are now on a three-year run atop the position in college football, making the trans-continental jump look remarkably easy.

"I think it comes across as though it's easier than what it is," Hackett said. "So for kids coming over, it's a matter of putting your mind to it and just doing it, because there are thousands of kids back home that are capable of it."

Hackett had his mind made up before 2011.

"That was what I was gonna do, whether people told me it wasn't gonna happen or not," he said.

Nowadays, Hackett thinks the infrastructure is more put-together. Hackett used to punt for hours by himself in local parks, but now the ProKick program is firmly defined. ProKick prospects have a weight program and a more programmatic schedule, and Chapman is able to be more hands-on.

"It's evolving," Hackett said. "The bottom line is the boys that are over here in college gotta perform for Nathan to continue his job, you know? And that's a little bit of pressure."

For Hackett, the entire transformation has been a mental one.

"My first game out there, I crapped myself for at least the first half of that first season," he said. "It's crazy how time flies. You just kind of see things a bit differently, and that's probably all it was."

Hackett's out of his own head now. In addition to Utah's pro day, he's worked out privately for the Chargers, and his agent said the Jets, Cardinals and Panthers have expressed interest.

There could be good money waiting for Hackett in professional football. At least on some level, he knows what he'll do with it.

"I probably owe my old man a fair bit of shrapnel [Aussie slang for money], so hopefully I can sort him out in a couple months," he said. "But no expectations. I guess we'll see."