From Haileybury To Happy Valley: Punter Riley Thompson’s Journey To American Football
Penn State football’s punter Riley Thompson has some big shoes to fill. The Nittany Lions have had consistent success at the punter position from now-NFL punter Jordan Stout through Barney Amor, who departed after last season.
Thompson stepped up and took over the reins of the Nittany Lion punting game this year after beating redshirt sophomore Gabe Nwosu and redshirt freshman Alex Bacchetta for the starting spot. The punter took advantage of being the starter and has performed well through the first half of the Nittany Lions’ season, punting 28 times for an average distance of 43.14 yards. Thompson has also done well in special teams coordinator Stacy Collins’ most important metric, situational football, and has pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line on 10 of his 28 attempts.
Thompson’s journey to the Division I level, however, started in Melbourne, Australia, while playing Australian Rules Football at Haileybury College. While at Haileybury, Thompson watched some of his teammates find success transitioning from the Australian game to the American game. After a few more of Thompson’s friends took the same route, the Australian decided to join Prokick Australia, a developmental program that trains athletes for success in America, and take a shot at going to an American college.
The Australian got his shot after spending just six months with Prokick Australia and was sent to Florida Atlantic to handle the punting duties in an American football game for the first time. Thompson took advantage of his opportunity, punting 61 times for an average of 45.4 yards and a long of 71 yards before hitting the transfer portal and ending up in State College.
“It all happened pretty fast,” Thompson said. “Obviously, it was really hard trying to get over here, but when it all happened, it was really worth it in the end.”
FAU plays football in a stadium that holds 29,571 and draws an average crowd of 17,565, a stark contrast to what Thompson now experiences in Beaver Stadium week in and week out. Thompson, though, hasn’t disappeared in the Beaver Stadium atmosphere and instead relishes in the opportunity to play in front of one of the largest crowds in college football.
That experience was given a new dimension when Penn State traveled to Columbus, Ohio, to play in front of over 100,000 fans who weren’t rooting for the Nittany Lions, but against them.
“You try to block it out, that’s the main thing you want to do,” Thompson said. “You’re focused on the kick and you’re focused on doing the best you can for your team. Yeah, it’s definitely something you notice at the start, but once the game gets rolling, you just enter game mode and start going from there.”
Thompson did just that during a game where he was asked to punt the ball a season-high nine times and pinned the Buckeyes within their own 20-yard line on four of his nine attempts.
The game against the Buckeyes was not only the game where Thompson saw his most involvement, but one of his best games so far. The punter says the reason for his continued improvement is thanks to the tight-knit community of Australian punters.
According to Thompson, a group chat with other Australian punters and friends where they can bounce ideas off of each other and ask anyone for advice has been pivotal to his development.
“It’s really awesome to have that connection because you can just send a message to any Australian punter, and I’m sure that they’re gonna reach out and have something good to say,” Thompson said.
Thompson recently had the chance to play against a member of that community in his former high school classmate and current Iowa punter Tory Taylor during the 2023 White Out. While he says it was exciting to see Australian punters showcased on the biggest stage, an even more exciting coincidence occurred before the game in a State College supermarket.
“My parents were at the supermarket and they saw a family wearing Iowa gear and they got talking and it ended up being Tory’s family,” Thompson said. “It was wild. It’s awesome. Seeing the representation of Australians and then Haileybury kids as well, I’m glad I’m a part of that.”
Before coming to America, Thompson continued to play Australian Rules Football while taking classes at Deakin University in Melbourne. Because of his time at Deakin, Thompson’s remaining eligibility at American universities isn’t clear. Penn State currently lists Thompson as a senior, but the punter says it’ll all be officially worked out after the end of the season — right now, it’s all football.
Whether or not this year ends up being Thompson’s last time playing college football, he’s nothing but grateful for the time he’s spent in the United States.
“To come over here and get to enjoy everything that comes with playing at a school like Penn State has been awesome,” Thompson said. “I would really just like to play for my family. So it’s pretty awesome to represent Australia and do something great for them.”
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“To any current underclassmen reading this: learn the fight song, cheer loud, and tailgate early. You’re lucky to be a Nittany Lion.”
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