HUNTINGTON - Today's game between Marshall and Memphis at Joan C. Edwards Stadium will reacquaint Thundering Herd fans with Australian punter Tom Hornsey, the central figure of one of the strangest plays in MU's 2011 season.The Herd blocked four punts on that Nov. 17 night, including Hornsey's third boot of the game early in the third quarter. With Memphis leading 13-10, Derek Mitchell rejected the punt and gave Marshall the ball deep in Tigers territory.Or so was the thought, even when the ball bounced into Hornsey's hands. He had a background in running and being tackled in the rough-and-tumble sport of Australian rules football, but was caught off guard in this moment.But 27 yards later, he still had the ball and the Tigers had a first down.
"It came off the pile and I picked it up and didn't know what to do with it, and somebody said 'run,' and I got a first down," Hornsey recalled. "It was a pretty exciting play."For statistical reference, Mitchell was charged with a fumble, Hornsey given a recovery and credit for 27 yards rushing from the spot of the recovery.Back in Australia, Hornsey played for St. Joseph's in the 2009 grand final of the Geelong Football League, a AAA-type league loaded with former Australian Football League players. He was invited to ProKick Australia, a camp run by Australian punter Nathan Chapman, who made it to the Packers' camp in 2004.Hornsey spent the 2009-10 season at the camp, eventually giving up "footy" in search of an American college scholarship. He drew a bit of attention for his high, arcing punts.Hornsby, now a junior, knows Louisiana State's Brad Wing, who famously lost a fake-punt touchdown to the NCAA's new live-ball celebration rule. Wing, a third-year sophomore, spent the 2009-10 year in high school in Baton Rouge, La., while Hornsey didn't come to the States until selecting Memphis.The Australian punter fraternity is larger than you might think - Darren Bennett was named to the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1990s and the San Diego Chargers' 50th Anniversary Team. Sav Rocca (Redskins), Mat McBriar (Cowboys) and Ben Graham (Lions) are current NFL veterans.Hornsby is getting plenty of work at Memphis, and we're not talking about practice. He had 80 punts in 2010, an FBS-high 95 last year and has 42 in seven games this year. His career average is 42.4 yards, with 64 downed inside the 20-yard line and 47 of 50 yards or more.He's majoring in exercise and sports science, and he's a surfer dude. (Alas, the waves aren't good in the mighty Mississippi.) He has a distinctly Australian accent and, by his coach's reckoning, a quirky personality."He's very laid back; he's hard to understand at times," Memphis coach Justin Fuente said. "But he's a competitor, a real athlete. He's got some toughness and some grit about him."Other special-teams tidbits:The Herd has punted 30 times this season, with Justin Haig booting it once from field-goal formation and Tyler Williams taking the other 29 attempts. At that rate, the Herd would need 251/3 games to match the Memphis punting load of 2011.
That swings both ways - Marshall's defense has forced foes into just 35 punts.The punt return is almost becoming an endangered species, as Marshall has just 13 returns in those 35 punts. Andre Snipes-Booker and others have taken 10 fair catches, a product of the Herd's tendency to go for blocked kicks.
Still, MU's 8.7-yard average on punt returns is nearly double the opponents' 4.5 average, with foes held to 11 returns.With three touchdowns against it, the Herd kickoff coverage team's net has risen, with opponents gaining the 29-yard line on average. Marshall's struggling return team is averaging the 24-yard line, a yard short of the new touchback spot. The Herd has kicked five touchbacks, compared to 17 against.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.