Will rookie punter become Bears’ new cult hero?

When the Iowa Hawkeyes did their pregame introductions at Kinnick Stadium, one of the loudest cheers was not for the quarterback, the running back or the star defender.

It was for the punter.

Most teams don’t even introduce the punter over the loudspeaker before a game. Iowa, on the other hand, went nuts for Tory Taylor. The crowd went nuts again the first time Taylor went onto the field for his first punt of the game. Hawkeyes fans broke out Australian flags and cheered him on like the All-American he was.

“We’d have to use silent cadence, because the place was going crazy,” Iowa special teams coordinator LeVar Woods said. “It’s funny, because his family, the first game they came to, they saw that and they thought that’s how all American football is for the punter. It’s like no, it’s not like that anywhere but here.”

Woods said he’s heard from several Iowa fans who want to buy Taylor’s Bears jersey. Again, this is a punter, not a quarterback.

Things could be much different in the NFL for Taylor, whom the Bears selected with a fourth-round draft pick a few weeks ago. But the Bears believe they’ve found an elite weapon in Taylor. He broke an 85-year-old NCAA record for punting yards in a season in 2023. He can boom the long ones and drop short punts with deadly accuracy.

If there’s any punter who could excite an NFL crowd, it might be Taylor.

“Bears fans are going to love this guy,” Woods said. “I mean, as much as anyone can love a punter.”

Coming to America

Five years ago, Taylor had never punted an American football. He grew up playing Australian rules football, in which points are scored by kicking an oval ball between goal posts. Unlike American football, Australian football doesn’t allow players to throw the ball with their hands, but kicking is quite a valuable skill.

In 2019, Taylor connected with Prokick Australia, an organization that helps train Australian kickers for American football kicking.

“(An) Australian rules football is a lot bigger, so the sweet spot is a lot bigger,” Taylor said during Bears rookie minicamp at Halas Hall over the weekend. “So the American football is a lot harder to consistently hit.”

Taylor’s journey to America began when Prokick coaches reached out to colleges in America. Iowa previously had another Australian punter named Michael Sleep-Dalton in 2019, which opened the door for the Hawkeyes.

Woods, Iowa’s special teams coordinator since 2017, liked what he saw from Taylor on film. There were messages back and forth, but communication is tough with a 15-hour time difference between Iowa City and Melbourne.

Seeing a player on film is one thing, but seeing him in person is another. Woods recalled a visit he took to Australia in late January 2020. The journey took more than 20 hours.

“He had practiced really well, had a great performance, and I really liked him as a person,” Woods said. “So his coaches pretty much nailed it. Everything they said about him was accurate.”

They scheduled an official visit for Taylor and his family to visit the Iowa City campus. But the COVID-19 pandemic had other ideas, and Taylor’s visit had to be canceled.

The Big Ten and then-commissioner Kevin Warren initially canceled the 2020 season. The conference later reversed its decision in mid-September and scheduled an abbreviated season.

Taylor wasn’t able to obtain a visa until the season was officially a go. He had to go through two quarantines, one in Australia and one in America, before and after his flight. He couldn’t join his Iowa teammates until about 10 days before the season opener.

“He’d never even been to the States,” Woods said, “never even seen a football game live. It’s kind of crazy to think about.”

Within days, Taylor was punting in the season opener on the road against Purdue.

Taylor went on to have a remarkable career with the Hawkeyes. He set school records with 46.3 yards per punt and 13,657 total punt yards. He also totaled 103 punts of 50 yards or more.

His 4,479 punt yards on 93 punts in 2023 bested Johnny Pingel’s single-season record set in 1938 with Michigan State. Taylor earned the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s best punter in 2023. He was the most dangerous weapon for an Iowa team that scored only 15.4 points per game and found itself punting often.

The next level

Bears special teams coordinator Richard Hightower described Taylor’s talents as “rare.”

“He’s a big man,” Hightower said. “He’s all of 6-4, 200-plus pounds, and when he hits that ball you can hear the sound of that ball, and that thump.”

For a special teams coordinator, that thump is music to the ears.

The Bears became the first team to select a punter or kicker in the 2024 draft when they took Taylor with the 122nd overall selection. That showed just how high of a priority punter was. Former Bears punter Trenton Gill, whom the Bears released after the draft, simply wasn’t getting it done. He was near the bottom of the league in yards per punt and punts downed inside the 20-yard line.

Taylor could elevate the Bears in those metrics.

“The most important thing to Tory is winning, and that’s very evident when you talk to him,” Hightower said. “He just wants to win. No nonsense, and he wants to win, and he wants to do his part to help the team win.”

In addition to punting, Taylor will be tasked with being the holder on field-goal tries. Punters usually take on that role for NFL teams. He will be a key member of the trio that includes longtime Bears long snapper Patrick Scales and veteran kicker Cairo Santos.

“Punting, most of the time, doesn’t necessarily result in points,” Taylor said. “But field goals do, and field goals can be a matter of winning and losing a game. I really enjoy being a part of that, too, and I’m looking forward to meeting Pat and Cairo.”

Taylor also could handle kickoff duties. The NFL has a new kickoff rule, which could make directional kicking more valuable.

His strength is impressive. Taylor’s longest punt last season traveled 67 yards, and he had 40 punts of 50 or more yards. He combines that with an elite touch. If the offense is anywhere near midfield, Taylor has a chance to pin the opposing team deep in its own end. He placed 32 punts inside the 20-yard line in 14 games last season.

The Bears look at that and see a massive opportunity for their surging defense.

“Tory is a weapon for the whole football team,” head coach Matt Eberflus said.

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