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Indiana Illinois Football

Blake Hayes is among the top punters in the country in just his second year of playing American football.

CHAMPAIGN — When Blake Hayes walks around the University of Illinois campus, he's a relative unknown.

Most people don't recognize the 6-foot-6 punter when he isn't wearing his No. 14 Illinois football jersey.

His Australian accent is distinguishable, but for the most part, he remains under the radar when he's almost anywhere other than Memorial Stadium.

That's just fine for the sophomore with a left leg that's been one of the most valuable assets on the Illinois football team the last two seasons.

“I don’t really get recognized," Hayes said. "The accent, people ask me if I’m Australian, but even then people don’t know about me too much. I prefer to stay low."

But Hayes' numbers are quickly turning high-profile.

He averages 45.9 yards per punt, which ranks him sixth in the nation, with a long of 69 yards. He also has 12 punts inside the 20-yard line, and nine that have traveled more than 50 yards.

"It’s about field position as much as anything," Illinois coach Lovie Smith said prior to the season. "He can help the defense as much as anyone can. It’s as simple as that. He can help field position and we have a weapon there."

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Hayes remains humble despite the fast start to his sophomore season and a strong freshman campaign that landed him on the BTN.com All-Freshman team. He averaged 42 yards per punt, sent 10 booming more than 50 yards down field and placed 22 punts inside the 20-yard line.

He credits special teams coach Bob Ligashesky's system for giving him confidence — after all, Hayes is in just his second season of playing American football — and the coverage team for backing him up.

But Hayes can feel the tide turn after he boots a punt to flip field position.

“Definitely, those punts inside the 10 (yard line) and inside the five, I feel like it gives the team so much energy," Hayes said. "A big punt can really get the team going, especially when it’s really close.

“I always think about that when I go out to punt that I have the opportunity to change the momentum of the game and really bring life to the sideline if it’s a bit dull, or just make the positive energy keep going if I have a successful punt."

Consider Hayes' life since he moved to Champaign.

He attended, and played in, his first college football game last season when the Illini hosted Ball State in the season-opener where Hayes punted four times.

Hayes had never experienced the fanfare or the energy that surrounds a college football game prior to suiting up and punting on the first Illini drive of that season.

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"It’s unreal the amount of people that come to the game and the amount of people that care about college sports," Hayes said. "I learned that very quickly, that a small town like this, it’s some people’s lives just watching a college team succeed. It’s great. I love it."

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That game, and the rest of the season, went by in a blur.

Hayes came to Champaign from Australia by way of Prokick Australia, which is churning out high-level punters.

His initial plan was to study in America. He's majoring in kinesiology, but quickly realized that football could be an avenue that was available because of his experience playing Australian Rules Football.

Kicking a ball has been part of Hayes' life for years.

“Since I could walk, really," he said. "That’s how we do it back home. The sport the majority of kids grow up playing is Australian Rules football, where we pass the ball by foot."

The end-over-end punt is natural for Hayes, but he's only been kicking spiral punts for about three years. He's working on perfecting that skill.

But Hayes is adapting, not only to the game and the expectations, but to life in Champaign.

His family lives in Australia. The team has adopted Hayes as family, and he has a family friend in Detroit.

South Florida scores late touchdown to beat Illinois

Hayes' family came over at the end of last season to watch him punt, but after experiencing frigid Champaign weather, they came during the first three games to watch Hayes this season.

“When you run out of that tunnel and you’re sitting on the bench and you get to see them across the field, it’s pretty special to go out there and try my best to make them proud," Hayes said.

In a packed stadium, he makes it a point to find his family as early as possible.

“I always take my time before the game and right before we run out and give them a wave, then I don’t really look at them during the games just to keep focused," Hayes said. "They know that, but as long as I can give them a wave, it’s pretty special."

NOTES: Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said defensive lineman Jamal Woods suffered a "significant knee injury" against Penn State and won't play against Rutgers. ... Offensive lineman Nick Allegretti has been named a semifinalist for the Campbell Trophy. The award recognizes the best scholar-athletes in the nation. Allegretti was also announced as a candidate for the Senior CLASS Award. The award has 30 candidates from around the nation who excel on and off the field.

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Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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