Just hearing that expression out of Hamish MacInnes was enough to perk up Gamecocks coach Jack Crowe’s ears. See, folks in Australia use that phrase, too.
There’s a lot both are going to learn about each other this football season. Everything MacInnes will be doing with the JSU football team this year will be a first or a biggest because the freshman punter has never done anything in American football until he joined the Gamecocks this summer.
First time wearing a football helmet. First time in pads. It’s all stages. Saturday was his first American football game — ever — and it went about as one might expect.
MacInnes averaged 35 yards for his six punts, but he never really skanked one — like his more experienced Arkansas counterpart did on his first punt of the season after a 56-yarder was called back for a penalty. He even earned a battle scar — a nasty rug burn on the inside of his right knee when he was dragged into the end zone trying to make a tackle on a return that eventually was ruled down way back upfield.
The biggest crowd he’d played any sport in front of before was about 200. There were that many on the sidelines Saturday at Razorback Stadium, or in one section of seats, and all of them were screaming “Woo Pig Sooie” from the time their favorite team walked through the tunnel.
“It was pretty crazy, a bit surreal,” MacInnes said of the experience. “It was something I’ve been dreaming about for a couple of years now. Playing in an SEC stadium is a big first impression of college football. It’s obviously a tough introduction … but I’d rather do that than play a smaller school.
“I’ve been to a lot of big Australian football games back home with 80 to 100,000 people. A lot of people said it was going to be constantly really loud and I thought it’d be louder than back there, but it really wasn’t.
“When you get settled into the game and the first quarter or so is done, the crowd settles down a bit and that ‘Pig Sooie’ stuff gets loud but it wasn’t anything that was really intimidating or frightening. You’re really focused on just what’s going on the field. You’re not really looking up in the stands every 30 seconds and (seeing) how many people are there and start counting heads.”
For all the anticipation, he did look at ease during pregame. He walked up and down the field, occasionally bouncing the football off the turf Aussie-rules style. Once the Gamecocks took the field for warmups, he regularly boomed punts past midfield.
If there were any hints of being nervous, they were nowhere to be found. This wasn’t a case of being cool on the outside and racing emotions on the inside. There were probably more teammates more pensive about the flight to Fayetteville than he was to be in his first football game.
“There’s always going to be nerves inside; I’d be lying if I said there were none, and I was probably surprised at the way I did adjust to the environment around me,” he said, “but we got there Friday afternoon and had a bit of a walk-around, so you get the wow moments out of the way.
“I’m just going out here to play football. I’m just going out here to punt. I’ve been kicking a ball since I was 5 years old, so that’s all I just kept thinking. There were a few people watching me and I just went out there and tried to do my job the best I could for the team.”
You might call MacInnes the mail-order punter. The Gamecocks needed one to take some pressure off quarterback Coty Blanchard. Special teams coordinator Max Thurmond saw a training film of MacInnes from a West Coast kicking school and thought he might be the solution. MacInnes was in the States at the time. He visited JSU and the connection was sealed.
Fast forward to Saturday. The plan was to have Blanchard kick the first punt — and he did — but after that, when the Gamecocks did punt on fourth down, it was all MacInnes.
The results were mixed and success measured by the element being considered. He wasn’t rattled by the environment, but he didn’t kick it out of the stadium either. His first three college punts all went for 37 yards, but each of his last three only went 33. It wasn’t until his third punt — the one on which he got the rug burn — was he able to start placing his kicks, a skill that impressed the JSU coaches on the training film as much as his hang time and length.
Still, he knows it can be better.
“Overall it wasn’t up to the standard I want it to be, but it wasn’t a complete failure — I didn’t have any that were blocked,” he said. “But under 35 is not good at all. I’ve got learn to really perform when my time’s needed and that should be whether it’s front of 70,000 in an SEC stadium or in front of 1,000 in the middle of nowhere. That’s something I’ve got to work on, the consistency of my performance.”
That is expected to come with time. Richie Rhodes, the Gamecocks’ three-time All-American to whom MacInnes is most often compared, hit a 40-yarder on his first JSU punt in 2001 — and he had the advantage of playing the game in high school. The biggest thing the JSU coaches wanted to see was the way MacInnes handled the live-game pressure, and Crowe said he was impressed that MacInnes never flinched.
“That was his first football game; I think he did a good job of going in there and handling the pressure,” Thurmond said. “Now did he execute as well as he has done? No, and that’s what we talked about with all our guys in the kicking game.
“I tell him all the time we didn’t bring you all the way from Australia to be average. He knows we expect a lot out of him. You think about it: The first time you play in a college football game and you’re playing in front of (70,000). He didn’t go in there and give us an 18-yard punt, one of those that comes off and eveyrbody in the stands is ducking. As far as handling the pressure and being on that stage, I think he handled himself like a true professional.”
The biggest issue is he got the first game out of the way, it just happened to come in a big-time college venue. Now, MacInnes knows what needs work and that’s where his focus lies moving forward. By the time the Gamecocks hit The Swamp in Florida at the end of the year, this should all be second-nature.
“It was disappointing we didn’t get the win we were after — that’s the reason we play, to win games — and personally I didn’t perform to the level I expect or the coaches expect,” he said. “A lot of people say it was my first game, but I’ve got to be ready any time any place. I’ll just move on and look to UTC this week and keep learning.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.