While the new offensive system and the defensive adjustments have earned all the attention this spring, punter Ben Griffiths has been impossible to ignore.
Part of that is because, at 6-foot-5, he’s easy to spot. But mostly it’s because he’s been that impressive this spring. It starts during the earliest part of practice, when most of the team is stretching on Brian Kennedy Field and he and the punt returners have Howard Jones Field to themselves. There are some days where the punt returners have so much trouble simply securing a catch, it might be more appropriate to hear the Trojan marching band playing Yakety Sax than Fight On!
“He’s got more shots,” special teams coach John Baxter said of Griffith’s ability. “You saw that. They have no idea. You remember when knuckleballers were first starting and catchers came out with the pizza glove? Well it’s the same thing. He can do some special things with that ball.”
Griffiths has been truly impressive with everything he’s been asked to do, virtually working as a JUGS machine during special teams work with his ability to spin kick after kick down inside the 10-yard line and along the sideline as the team practices downing punts and preventing touchbacks. He also unleashed a kick during Thursday’s warmups that traveled at least 60 yards in the air and landed on the out of bounds line well inside the 20-yard line.
None of it comes as a surprise to Baxter.
“I knew what we were getting,” he said of Griffiths. “I’d seen him on tape.”
Griffiths’ recruitment was a long one, both in terms of time and distance. The former Australian rules football team was a second-round pick of the Richmond Tigers of the Australian Football League in 2009. After eight years in the AFL, Griffiths retired due to injuries and concussions, beginning his career at USC.
Baxter said he recruited Griffiths for nearly two years, as his hands were tied at punter until the 2019 class.
“When I came here in 2016, we had Reid [Budrovich] and Chris [Tilbey] [on scholarship] and it was a three-year project to have an opportunity to recruit another player,” Baxter said. “We were kind of locked in place for ’16, ’17, and ’18.”
Baxter said he was 100 percent sure that Griffiths would follow through on his stated plan to retire from the AFL and head to USC. He sees it as a special opportunity for all involved.
“In Australia, the system is a lot like professional baseball,” Baxter said. “The great players go [pro] straight out of high school. They never have a chance to go to college and he really wanted to go to college.”
Baxter said Griffiths wants to be a teacher after his playing days are over, again. At 27, Griffiths is older than every player on the roster by a good margin, and that shows up in his preparation.
“He and I, we watch tape together,” Baxter said. “We talk strategy. But he’s a mature guy. He comes up to the office when his homework is done…He drinks a cup of coffee and we sit there and watch tape. It’s a very professional relationship.”
Australian kickers have become prominent punters, as veterans of the Prokick Australia system won the Ray Guy Award every year from 2013-2017. But Griffiths is still a bit different from that group.
“He’s the first real accomplished AFL guy to come do this,” Baxter said. “There have been VFL (Victorian Football League) players; there have been some guys with a couple of years of AFL. But to get a guy with that level of experience, that level of talent, and that level of maturity, that really wants a college degree. That’s what makes it special.”