When Daniel Cadona ran onto the turf at Arkansas’ Razorback Stadium last year, a lot of the Louisiana-Lafayette faithful — players, fans and coaches alike — were holding their breath.
Cadona wasn’t that concerned about his first punt as a Ragin’ Cajun.
“I didn’t worry about it too much,” the Darwin, Australia, native recalled. “I was just going about my business.”
That first punt against the Razorbacks, early in the second quarter, sailed 41 yards to a fair catch, and the then-junior went on to punt four other times in the game, averaging a solid 43.6 yards per kick in the Cajuns’ season-opening 34-14 loss.
Those who didn’t know the backstory didn’t think much about it. Those who did let out a sigh of relief, since that was the first time Cadona had ever kicked an American football in competition. It was also his first time on the sideline for an American football game.
Heck, he was still getting used to this country’s connotation of “football.” In his native land, that was either what is called soccer in the U.S., or what he still considers his best sport.
“Australian rules football was my No. 1 sport,” said Cadona, who was also active in rugby and basketball.
The 6-foot-4 Cadona was good enough in that football discipline to twice represent the Northern Territory, one of Australia’s eight states, in the national under-18 tournament. But that background didn’t do much to prepare him for the American connotation.
“Last year it was all new,” Cadona said. “I hadn’t even played in a game yet, and I kind of didn’t know what to expect. I caught myself thinking the other day how far behind I was at this time last year, how raw I was and that I had no idea what I was stepping into.”
UL-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth wasn’t sure what would happen, either.
“He’d just learned how to put on his pants,” Hudspeth said.
The results were nearly all positive. He finished the season with a 41.7 average, third in the Sun Belt Conference, and had 11 punts of 50 or more yards. Those numbers would have been higher had Cadona not shown a knack for killing kicks inside the opposing 20-yard line.
He did that 17 times during the year, including three times in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl win over Tulane when he pinned the Green Wave at its own 6-, 3- and 5-yard lines — the last two in the fourth quarter. That’s when his Australian rules background, which emphasizes short and controlled kicks, paid dividends.
“He’s really good at pooch kicks,” Hudspeth said. “He spins it backwards. He hits that Tiger Woods pitching wedge that’ll hit on the 1 and spin backwards.”
He showed that in the season’s second game at Kansas State, when his second-quarter 45-yard punt hopped and died at the Wildcats 3. A lesson came later in that game when one of his kicks was brought back 79 yards to set up a KSU score. The rest of the year, opponents returned only three punts for more than 1 yard.
Cadona arrived on campus in the spring before the 2013 season, having caught the attention of college coaches at an earlier kicking camp in Las Vegas when he averaged nearly 50 yards per kick. Despite his lack of American play, he’d been ranked by Scout.com as the No. 3 punting prospect nationally, but it wasn’t until preseason camp that he started getting comfortable with his role.
“I started feeling like I was part of the team,” he said. “Throughout the season, I felt more and more into it, especially when I’d have a good game or I’d helped the team out. At the end of the year, when we won the New Orleans Bowl, that was a huge deal for me, to win along with my teammates.”
It was those teammates who enjoyed his Aussie accent — and hassled him for his colorful use of slang that was totally foreign to them.
“When I first got here, there were a lot of pranks,” he said. “There was a little barrier when I’d say things that people didn’t know. They still give me a hard time sometimes. I caught a bit of a hard time during the World Cup when Australia did pretty poorly. ... I caught a bit of a hardie about that.”
“I’m learning a lot of it,” Hudspeth said, “but he still comes out with stuff all the time. He said something the other day about seeing some guy smoking a heater (a cigarette), and I didn’t know what a heater was.”