Antonio Morales (The Athletic) — LOS ANGELES — Ben Griffiths’ official USC player bio doesn’t dance around the obvious. “At 27,” one sentence reads, the redshirt freshman punter is “one of the oldest Trojan football players ever.”
Griffiths, who hails from Melbourne and is getting such a late start on his college football career because he spent eight seasons from 2010 to 2017 as a 6-foot-5, 250-pound forward in the Australian Football League, isn’t satisfied with that description.
“I want to know who the oldest is,” said Griffiths, who turns 28 on Sept. 17, “because I want to try and beat them if I can.”
Age jokes, American culture and the intricacies of a new sport have all been part of Griffiths’ adjustment to USC. And the Trojans need him to acclimate quickly and revive their punting game, which ranked 112th nationally among 130 FBS programs with an average of 38.73 yards per punt a year ago.
The assistant coach in charge of that turnaround is John Baxter, who is in the fourth year of his second stint on USC’s staff and has had special teams duties attached to his title at every stop of his coaching career since 1986. Over that time, he’s developed plenty of opinions. Around 2012, he believed it was necessary to look toward Australia for punters. For one thing, Baxter thought the Australian rules football player’s skill set, with its increased emphasis on directional kicking, transferred well to punting. For another, he felt that the homefront was barren.
“This country doesn’t produce punters,” Baxter said after USC’s practice Tuesday. “Under five (players), there’s really not one player in high school in America ready to (punt in) Division I. Because there’s no place in the country where you do that skill. If you look at the front yard in Australia, a dad and son are punting it back and forth to each other. Here, they play catch.”
Baxter intended on going in this direction toward the end of his first stint as USC’s special teams coordinator, but he was not retained when Steve Sarkisian was named head coach in December 2013. When Baxter re-emerged as Michigan’s special teams coordinator in 2015, he had an Australian punter in Blake O’Neill. (Baxter and O’Neill’s lone year together in Ann Arbor will forever be remembered for O’Neill’s botched punt in the final seconds that gave Michigan State a stunning win over the Wolverines.)
O’Neill had taken what has become a common transoceanic route to Michigan: Prokick Australia, a training academy designed to help Australian athletes transition into American football. Nathan Chapman, the head punting coach at Prokick, helps facilitate conversations between college coaches and those Australian athletes, which makes him the point person for specialist-needy coaches like Baxter.
In the wake of the departures of Reid Budrovich and Chris Tibley (another Australian), who shared punting duties in 2018, Baxter needed to find a punter in the 2019 class. At the same time, Griffiths was eyeing his options.
The Richmond Tigers had taken Griffiths as a teenager with a second-round pick in the 2009 Australian Football League draft and brought him into the top level of Aussie rules the next year. Griffiths scored 42 goals in 63 games over nearly eight and a half years, and he was getting paid to play a sport he’d been playing since he was 5. He had set out clear goals for what he wanted to do with his money and how he wanted to manage it.
“It’s a pretty full-on (experience)” Griffiths said of his AFL career. “Looking back, I think about it. I probably wasn’t mature enough to sort of grasp it.”
But life after football was always in the back of Griffiths’ mind. His retirement from Aussie rules wasn’t a direct result of the toll concussions had taken on his career, he says, but the injuries helped put things into perspective.
“It doesn’t last forever and it’s such a small portion of your life,” Griffiths said. “Looking past that and resetting goals about what I wanted to achieve off the field, and education was part of that. Unfortunately, the system back home doesn’t facilitate full-time study. I was thinking about if I left the game, what would I have next to my name? I wanted to see past being a football player. Getting that degree was really appealing. Fortunately, there’s a system over here that allows you to play the sport at a very high level whilst attaining a degree.”
Griffiths said his Aussie rules teammates followed American sports closely, so he watched college football pretty regularly. One of his Tigers teammates, Ben Lennon, also trained with Chapman at Prokick and signed on to punt at Utah.
Griffiths met Chapman and the two spoke about his options, including all that the transition actually involves. Eventually, Chapman sent Baxter some film of Griffiths.
Baxter could see Griffiths was extremely raw. He would have to learn the game — working in yards instead of meters, understanding the pre-snap looks, identifying pressures, etc. — and he would have to train every day.
“But,” Baxter said, “his talent is real.”
Eventually, Baxter took a 17-hour flight to Australia.
“I was talking to (Baxter) and I was still contracted at the time,” said Griffiths. “(I) got the offer and it was kind of a no-brainer to me. To extend my sporting career past however long it would have been back home was too good to turn down.”
Griffiths enrolled at USC in January, and an ambitious acclimation process began. In the same class, the Trojans were adding a 27-year-old in Griffiths and a 17-year old in true freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis, who has since turned 18. Slovis had to ask head coach Clay Helton if he could go to his prom earlier this spring. Griffiths has already been to his 10-year high school reunion.
“He’s an old dude but he’s our age at heart,” backup center Justin Dedich said. “He fits right in, probably because he played Australian football. We all accepted him with open arms.”
Teammates have called Griffiths “Dad” or “Uncle,” but he hasn’t been called “fossil” yet, which he considers a win. It remains to be seen whether that will still be the case by the time he turns 31 during his senior season.
Still, Griffiths has been on the other side of this before. Ten years ago, when he was drafted by Richmond straight out of high school, he was the younger guy playing with veterans. He remembers sitting around as an 18-year-old as former players came to visit and talk to the team. They’d tell him time moves quickly and not to waste it.
“I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, gee, I’ve heard this a million times,’” Griffiths said. “But eight and a half years goes fast. I guess the thing that’s changed is I’m the only old guy.”
Griffiths tries to spend as much time as he can with different people on the team, but his closest friends are his fellow special teamers: long snapper Damon Johnson and kickers Alex Stadthaus, Thomas Fitts and Michael Brown.
He lives on campus, next to Johnson. With football and homework, Griffiths doesn’t have much spare time, but when he is free, he goes hiking — Stadthaus took him to the Santa Monica Mountains — and plays a lot of beach volleyball. Johnson says they spend a lot of time playing with Griffiths’ new dog or playing cornhole.
“He’s a guy you want around if you’re having a bad day,” Johnson said. “He’ll make you laugh. He’s also one of those guys, he doesn’t act 27 sometimes and he’s able to relate to all of us.”
There are things he doesn’t relate to, though. Griffiths will readily admit that he’s completely missed the boat on Fortnite and most video games. There’s more hip-hop in the States than there is back home. College sports matter much more here than in Australia, where they’re mostly irrelevant. Then there’s the difference in vocabulary.
“The biggest thing I don’t understand is that the biscuits are scones,” Griffiths said. “Because biscuits back home are like your cookies. I’ve had plenty of debate about what’s what.
“I’m still calling them scones.”
Griffiths has put on 30 pounds since he arrived on campus, Baxter said. He’s powerful, too. But most importantly to Baxter, Griffiths is athletic, the product of years playing his first love.
“The No. 1 trait of a good punter is his athleticism,” the Trojans’ special teams coach said. “That’s not the No. 1 trait of every great kicker because as a punter, you have to catch that snap, and then everything’s moving from then on. Your feet are moving, your body is moving, the ball is moving and it’s not a round ball.”
Griffiths described his punting style as pretty conventional. He’s still trying to fine-tune his spiral, but he believes his drop punt is pretty good right now. Tyler Vaughns, a pretty sure-handed receiver, is one of several USC punt returners who have struggled to catch some of Griffiths’ knuckleball punts.
Two things stand out when watching Griffiths in practice. First is the distance. He routinely boots the ball 50 yards, which would amount to a huge upgrade from a year ago, when the Trojans were getting by with 20- to 30-yard punts to open the season. Second is the hangtime. Griffiths’ punts hang in the air for what seems like an extraordinary amount of time.
“I really think the guy is a weapon,” Helton said earlier in training camp. “He’s going into his first college game, but he’s played at the pro level in the AFL. … He’s walked out here in these situations and it’s mind-blowing what he could do with the ball.”
If Griffiths’ punting translates from the practice field to the Coliseum and everywhere else USC plays this fall, he’ll be known for more than his age or his accent.
“Not in my 25 years (have I seen something like it),” Helton said. “Not that special of a leg.”