(STATS) – There were times early last season at Incarnate Word that punter Joe Zema would ask his teammates on the sidelines: “What does this mean?” or “How does that work?”
That Zema was puzzled was understandable. The Australian had barely been living in the United States for two months, let alone participating in college football.
Zema’s learning curve didn’t last long. In his only season as a graduate student at the Southland Conference school in San Antonio, he led the FCS in punting, averaging 46.7 yards on 77 punts, and was named to the STATS FCS All-America first team.
His eye-opening season has turned him into an NFL prospect, graded as a late-round draft pick or a priority free agent.
“I guess starting my college season I didn’t really expect too much, I just wanted to have a good college season,” Zema said. “It sort of caught everybody’s attention a little bit, so I’ve just been preparing since then. I’d just be happy to go anywhere in any circumstance.”
In the buildup to the April 26-28 draft, Zema punted in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl – one of the leading all-star games – and averaged 50 yards on three attempts. On Wednesday, he will display his skills before scouts at the pro day being hosted by UTSA.
It’s been a whirlwind and an educational eight months for Zema, who has had to get used to driving on a different side of the road in addition to adapting to American college life. But his long-term priorities have changed in the short time period, going from wanting to use up his final season of collegiate eligibility while taking graduate courses in education to seeking an NFL career.
Zema grew up playing Australian Rules football – “since I could walk basically,” he says – as well as cricket, earning honors in both sports. A bachelor’s degree in his homeland is usually completed in three years, and Zema did so at Australian Catholic University, leaving him with the opportunity to play a graduate season at an American school. He pursued it through the Prokick Australia academy, which helps kickers transition to U.S. colleges.
After contacts were made through the academy, Incarnate Word coach Larry Kennan and his staff offered a scholarship to Zema in July. Come Aug. 4, he arrived on campus, celebrating his 23rd birthday within the first week.
The ball was smaller and pointier than the one used in Aussie Rules, and instead of running around the field and making 15-20 kicks in different directions during a game, he took snaps and punted in one direction. But did that ever work out as the Aussie ruled the FCS in punting.
In Incarnate Word’s first game at Fresno State, the 6-foot-1, 207-pound Zema set the program record with a 75-yard punt. He booted 31 over 50 yards and went on to set the Southland record for punting average in a season. His excellent hang time forced 22 fair catches and pinned opponents inside their 20 on 20 occasions with only five touchbacks. Incarnate Word led the nation in net punting average at 41.75 yards.
“Obviously, I knew how I could punt,” Zema said, “but I sort of had no idea how it would compare to the rest of the conference and the country I guess. I just thought if I could punt as well as I did preparing for the college season, I would be happy. I guess as a few games went on and I punted well, I started getting an idea that I could do this pretty well.
“I think I have a very fluid sort of action,” he added. “I think I time the ball very well. I don’t have so much power, but I time it well and get that good connection on the ball.”
Zema reunited with his Aussie kicking coach, Nathan Chapman, for a week of training in December in Los Angeles, but he’s mostly worked out on campus while continuing to take graduate classes. He signed with Team Sports Agency out of Dallas and is anxiously awaiting his next big adventure – playing on Sundays.
“It’s been a really good transition, I like it over here,” he said. “It’s the longest I’ve been away from home, but it’s been a good taste.”