Daniel Cadona had been solid with his punting duties for Louisiana-Lafayette squad throughout the 2013 season, and that was plenty good enough for the Ragin’ Cajuns considering he’d never put on a football uniform in his life before that season began.
But it was in last December’s R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl that the Australian became a weapon when the Cajuns needed it most.
With UL-Lafayette piecing together an offense around still-injured quarterback Terrance Broadway, Cadona won the field position battle and helped the Cajuns win the war in a 24-21 victory over Tulane.
It wasn’t so much his numbers, even though Cadona had a 40.9 average and allowed only two returns for a total of 10 yards. Three times he pinned the Green Wave inside its 6-yard-line to start drives — two of those coming in the fourth quarter when Tulane had to start from its own 3 and its own 5.
“When you have someone that can do that on a regular basis, that is so important,” Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth said. “He (Cadona) does that better than just about anybody I’ve seen.”
UL-Lafayette downed his 38-yard punt at the three with 11:15 left, and one play later Sean Thomas’ second interception of the game set up Hunter Stover’s field goal that broke a 21-21 tie. Later, after the Cajuns marched from their own 9 to midfield, Cadona’s 44-yard punt was fair-caught at the Wave 5 with 1:35 left, and Tulane eventually missed a long field goal in the final 10 seconds.
Cadona took it almost matter-of-factly.
“It didn’t surprise me. I knew I was capable of that,” he said. “If you’re a competitor, you want that kind of pressure. Every one of those punts were different, and all I had to do was execute.”
Cadona played Australian rules football and rugby at Toowoomba Secondary School in Darwin, Australia, and that background has allowed him to use several different styles of punting depending on the situation, an ability that’s allowed him to average 43.3 per kick this year with only 14 of those returned. The average would be higher had it not been for one block, and he’s had 17 kicks of 50 or more yards and 24 killed inside the opposing 20.
“The first thing is whether it’s a two-step or a three-step,” he said, “and that depends on field position. Then, it’s either the Aussie punt or the spiral, depending on if we’re going for 40 yards and hang time or 50 to change field position.”
The spiral is the accustomed method, but Cadona has also used the Aussie style to great effectiveness. That one sails end over end backwards, much like a kickoff, and usually allows teammates to down the ball close to where it hits.
There’s also the “rugby rollout,” where the punter takes several steps to the side — as many as possible, depending on pressure — to allow teammates to get downfield. That kicks goes forward end-over-end and can result in huge rolls after contact with the turf.
“If you’re getting a lot of pressure, that’s hard,” Cadona said. “You have to steady yourself on a dead run, but we’ve definitely gotten some good field position on those.”
A couple of those came early in the season against Ole Miss, when he averaged 51.1 yards on seven kicks. In that game, his first six kicks were for 50 or more yards, and only two were returned for single-digit yardage. If not for a 38-yarder in the final minutes that was downed at the Ole Miss 15, his average would have been even better.
“That’s what’s different this year,” said Hudspeth, who serves as his own special teams coach. “He’s been so much more consistent. We haven’t made a lot of mistakes in the punting game this year, and he’s the biggest reason for that.”
Nine times in 12 games, Cadona averaged over 40 yards per punt, and opposing returners have gone for double-digit yardage only three times out of 56 kicks. That’s the kind of numbers that may earn him a next-level opportunity.
“Everyone has those aspirations, but I’m not even thinking about that right now,” he said. “I guess you’d say I’m weighing my options.”
What he’s also doing is looking forward to Saturday’s game, in part because of the pristine kicking conditions inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and in part because of the memories of one year ago.
“Just the experience there was special,” Cadona said. “Just contributing to what we did, pinning them deep at the end, and to win with my teammates. That’s one of the first times I really felt like I was a part of it.”