No rest for Irwin-Hill in pursuit of his NFL dream

Sam Irwin-Hill interview

AFTER a rare chance to catch up with friends and family back home in Bendigo, it's now back to business for Sam Irwin-Hill as he continues to pursue his NFL punting dream.

Irwin-Hill has returned to America from a three-week visit back to Bendigo to begin preparations for his second NCAA College Football division one season with the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Arkansas' 2013 season finished in late-November and the 2014 season doesn't start until August 31.

But there's little respite for the Razorbacks and their No.1 punter, Irwin-Hill, a former Catholic College Bendigo student.

"We'll have spring practice where we'll go flat out for three weeks, then drop off a bit, then get back into it again, so we'll do some really big patches (of training)," Irwin-Hill told the Bendigo Advertiser.

"There's a lot of work... it doesn't stop.

"We're putting in 25-plus hours a week (training), so it's close to a full-time job. You're always around the club and the system and we're just aiming for a big 2014 season."

Irwin-Hill, 23, joined the Razorbacks on a scholarship after spending 2011 and 2012 playing with the City College of San Francisco Rams in junior college competition.

His two years with the Rams included helping the team win the national championship in 2011 in an undefeated season.

While Irwin-Hill tasted national success with the Rams, it was tough going for the Razorbacks - based in Arkansas' third-largest city, Fayeteville - last season.

Arkansas made a promising start to the season when it won its first three games - all by double-figure margins - but the Razorbacks fell away, losing their last nine games to end the season 3-9 and at the bottom of the western division in the NCAA southeastern conference.

"We had an up-and-down season, but the experience was really good to be able to play in such a professional environment," Irwin-Hill said.

"We didn't go that well statistically, but our team showed that we can compete with the best of the best.

"We came very close to winning a lot of our games, but there were just a few things we didn't do well as a team to get us over the line.

"But it's very positive now and I think next year good things are going to happen."

While it was a tough season for the Razorbacks, Irwin-Hill made his mark - even if he modestly only described his year as "mediocre".

Irwin-Hill was among the nominees for the prestigious Ray Guy Award, which honours America's best College punter, while he was also featured in an article in USA Today on Australian-born punters.

"As a punter, the Ray Guy Award is a big deal, so to be nominated is a really good honour and gives you a lot of confidence," Irwin-Hill said.

"Hopefully, I'll be up there in the top 10 next season... that's the goal."

Irwin-Hill's stats last year included 46 punts at an average of 44.3 yards.

Among his punts was a 79-yard bomb against South Carolina in October - the seventh-longest in Razorbacks' history - while Irwin-Hill also attracted plenty of attention for his ability to kick on both feet.

"It (his season) was fairly mediocre. I know that statistically it looked pretty good, but at the same time there's always room for improvement," Irwin-Hill said.

"I know that the only way right now for the team and myself is up and with the sights of the NFL in the background, it's going to be a very big season.

"I know this is my last (College) year to have a crack, so it's going to be a big year."

To get some understanding of just how big the sport of College Football is in America, you only need to look at the crowds Irwin-Hill played in front of last year.

In their 12 games, the average crowd for a Razorbacks match was 68,793. One game in Alabama - a 52-0 loss for the Razorbacks - drew a crowd of 101,821.

"When you're out there, it doesn't really occur to you at all, but when you look back on it, it's amazing," Irwin-Hill.

"There are so many passionate people over there and they love their football.

"In Arkansas, the whole state is behind us and it's amazing seeing the people who get around you at the games... I've never seen anything like it."

Playing in front of more than 100,000 raucous American football fans is about as far away as it gets from Irwin-Hill's days playing Aussie Rules with the Bendigo Pioneers and Eaglehawk under-18s.

"I miss those days, but at the same time, I looked outside the square and found something new and different that I was confident I had the ability to do and went for it," said Irwin-Hill, whose path to America included a year-long stint with Nathan Chapman and John Smith's Pro Kick Australia Academy.

"The goal from here is the NFL, but I'll just take it one step at a time and not get ahead of myself.

"Hopefully, I can have a good season both personally and with the team and then have a crack at the NFL."

Watch the Irwin-Hill video online at the Bendigo Advertiser website.

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