Although his fake punt attempt against Northwestern didn’t go to plan – he was tackled for a 2-yard loss – Ohio State freshman punter Cameron Johnston has been on quite a roll lately.
The Australia native has downed each of his last 10 punts, a streak that began against Florida A&M on Sept. 21, inside the opposing 20-yard line. He has only had one punt returned this season, and it was only advanced 3 yards.
Johnston opened up the game against Northwestern by pinning the Wildcats inside their own 1-yard line on his first punt. That led to a blocked punt by Bradley Roby in the end zone, which the junior cornerback recovered for the Buckeyes’ first touchdown of the game.
Against Wisconsin, Johnston landed all six of his punts inside the 20-yard line, including five inside the 10. His last punt, which put the Badgers at their own 10-yard line with 1:28 left to play in the fourth quarter, traveled 55 yards.
In all, he has punted 21 times for 843 yards, an average of 40.1 yards per attempt. A total of 14 of those kicks have landed inside the opposing 20-yard line, and two have traveled more than 50 yards. His season-best effort came when he booted a 61-yard punt against California.
He flashed his potential the first time he stepped on the turf in Ohio Stadium, which very nearly ended in disaster. Instead, Johnston leapt to snatch a wayward snap out of the air, bringing it down and getting off a 39-yard punt that was downed at the Buffalo 27-yard line.
“I remember the first snap in his first game was way high and right, and he handled it with no problem,” Nathan Chapman, who coached Johnston at his Prokick Australia training service in Melbourne, Australia, told BSB. “These guys come from a game where they’re running, jumping and getting hit from 360 degrees.”
Making the transition
Johnston came from a background in Australian rules football, which he played until his connections led him to Chapman, a native Australian who spent a training camp punting for the Green Bay Packers in 2004. Hailing from Geelong, Victoria, Australia, Johnston went to school and played Aussie rules football with a fellow Geelong native who trained under Chapman and parlayed it into a spot on an NCAA Division I roster.
“I was friends with Tom Hornsey, who’s at Memphis at the moment,” Johnston told BSB. “He’s in his final year over there, and he’s done really well over there. He’ll be up for the Ray Guy (Award), and he has a chance to go much further with it. I went to school with him, and then Jamie (Keehn) at LSU, I knew of him as well. I knew that and decided to do the program at Prokick with Nathan.”
It didn’t take Johnston long to impress the coaches at Prokick Australia with his natural talent. Although he struggled at times to produce a spiral punt that has traditionally been favored in American football, he displayed the booming distance that signaled to Chapman that he would eventually become a high Division I prospect.
“The first day that Cameron came down, I knew he had a strong leg,” Chapman said. “Like most of the guys who come and try out, he probably hit three or four spirals within an hour. To me, it didn’t matter. I knew he had the power and that we would train the rest.”
At Prokick Australia, the coaching staff aims to provide kickers and punters with skills that will allow them to earn either NCAA scholarships or a tryout with a professional team in either the NFL or CFL.
Many of the players come from a background in either rugby or Australian rules football. The transition to success in American football takes time, and the staff tries to ensure that universities are receiving players who can compete for playing time right away and serve as four-year starters.
“Aussie rules players have a very fluid kicking style initially, but there are still some really big adjustments that need to be done if they want to be very consistent in kicking a spiral,” Chapman said. “We do weights, we do running. It’s not just guys who can literally just kick a football. These guys are well-trained, well-versed, understand the game and know their place and what’s required. That’s why they come across so ready to play. They come across ready and raring to go because they’ve been through such a big journey and process before getting there.”
‘Go find your punter’
The defection of verbally committed punter Johnny Townsend on National Signing Day in 2013 left the Buckeyes with a hole they sought to fill.
Senior kicker Drew Basil is capable of punting and did so in the spring, but Ohio State obviously stood to benefit from bringing in a specialist who could serve as a four-year starter.
After turning over the reins as special teams coordinator to Kerry Coombs, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer issued a pretty direct order to his assistant.
“In the situation we were in, Coach Meyer is pretty clear about all of our responsibilities,” Coombs said. “He said, ‘Go find your punter. I don’t care where you find him. I don’t care where you get him. Go find your punter.’”
Coombs admitted that he and the rest of the coaching staff always search Ohio first on the recruiting trail but that they also endeavor to find the best players at each position.
With signing day past and many of the top punters in the country already bound to other schools, Coombs launched an intensive search that spanned all corners of the football-playing globe.
“We looked everywhere, and I mean everywhere,” he said. “We had film coming in from all different avenues, and one of those avenues is Australia. Those kids have had success here, for whatever reason. So you take a look at all of them, and that was exhausting and tiresome. You don’t really know what you’re looking at.”
The Buckeyes took a second look at Johnston, who was being marketed to some of college football’s top programs by Prokick Australia, and they became more convinced that the redheaded Aussie was their man.
“This kid happened to be 21. He happened to have played Australian rules football. He had a lot of those things going on,” Coombs said. “So there’s all these phone calls, and you still don’t have a name with a face. You’ve got to bring him here and visit with him.”
Fortunately for Coombs, he was able to avoid making that trip himself.
When Coombs began seriously recruiting Johnston, he dreaded the prospect of having to fly halfway across the globe to visit a punter that, because of NCAA rules, he wouldn’t even be allowed to watch kick.
Traveling to a location nearly 10,000 miles away only to fly back a couple of hours later was an unenviable task, and Coombs eventually persuaded Meyer to have Johnston sent to Columbus instead.
Johnston certainly won over Coombs, and he had a scholarship offer waiting for him at the end of the trip. But the always-caffeinated assistant also did his part in selling the scarlet and gray to his Aussie target.
“He was great,” Johnston said. “I loved him. The amount of energy he’s got and the passion he’s got for Ohio State, I think that was the biggest draw to coming here. He knows his stuff, but the passion he has for the game is amazing.”
The other factor at play was the philosophy of the program responsible for developing and marketing him. According to Chapman, Prokick Australia doesn’t aim to bid out its athletes to bigger and better programs.
There had been some interest from programs like Notre Dame and Alabama, but neither offered a scholarship right away. Alabama wanted him to wait a year, and Chapman believes that if the Ohio State offer never came, Johnston likely would have ended up punting for the Crimson Tide in the fall of 2014.
“The way it turned out, the offer came from Ohio State first and that’s pretty much how we work around here,” Chapman said. “We’re not here to shop guys around. We pick the programs that are appropriate for our players based on the size of program and the environment, and a lot of the time we’ll take that offer. We know how hard it is to recruit guys from over here, so we’re certainly not in the game of fine-tuning offers. He had a couple other places that probably would have panned out, but Ohio State needed someone straightaway, and he was ready to go.”
‘Like a baby kangaroo’
Upon landing in the United States at Los Angeles International Airport, one thing immediately stood out to Johnston.
“When I got to the L.A. airport, I couldn’t believe how loud everyone was,” he said. “That was the biggest one for me.”
When he arrived on campus, though, the Ohio State coaches quickly discovered something about their new punter – he doesn’t rattle easily.
“I really like the kid,” Coombs said. “You guys understand what kind of pressure we put our kids under, and it’s really hard to crack that dude. He’s unique, and he’s fun, and I think that long term, he’s going to have a phenomenal career at Ohio State.”
As it turns out, that was by design.
At Prokick Australia, coaches measure and evaluate how players respond to criticism and yelling. The goal is to churn out athletes capable of withstanding the high-pressure environment of major college football.
“We look at the way they respond to coaching and the way they respond to being yelled at,” Chapman said. “We yell at them during training. We try to bust their balls just like a coach would. We need to find out over the course of the 12 months how they’re going to respond to the excitement. Some of the coaches are pretty passionate. We know Coach Coombs is certainly a passionate coach.”
Johnston isn’t easily fazed – even by a coach as intense as Coombs. In fact, he almost always displays a positive demeanor. Chapman said that his value as a teammate was quickly apparently and that the organization regarded him as a highly rated leader.
“I never saw him not smile,” Chapman said. “He’s funny, he’s always having a laugh and a giggle. He moves around like a baby kangaroo, bouncing around all over the place. He’s very lively and good fun to be around.”
Keehn, who has averaged 40.6 yards per punt for LSU this season, also came through the Prokick Australia program. He spent a couple of weeks in May working out with Johnston before the latter moved to Columbus.
The work can be serious at times, but there’s no doubt that the Aussies are having fun while training.
“Off the field, we like to joke around,” Keehn said. “We’re always giving each other grief about hitting the best ball, that kind of stuff. He’s a guy that you want to sit down and have a beer with and have a nice chat.”
At the same time, when he’s on the field, he’s all business.
Hornsey also kicked with him after Johnston had booked a spot on the Ohio State roster but before he left. The Memphis senior marveled at his younger counterpart’s determination.
“He’s a pretty big competitor,” Hornsey said. “He’s always trying to learn and get better.”
Room for improvement
Because Johnston didn’t arrive in Columbus until June, he’s still making up for the growth he would have gained by being present for spring practice.
“I think as anyone would expect, for someone from not just a small school or something like that, but from a foreign environment, to come into this environment and have to perform, it’s going to take a little bit of time,” Coombs said. “Not having had the benefit of spring ball and all those kinds of things, I think his development has been extraordinary and very rapid. He obviously has talent, but there is a lot more that goes into being a punter, particularly here, than just talent and just being able to catch a ball and kick a ball. Obviously, he had a great game (against Wisconsin), but I believe there are better days ahead for him, and so we’re very encouraged.”
Through the first six games of the season, Johnston hasn’t regularly produced the monstrous kicks that can be seen on YouTube videos from his time at Prokick Australia. Meyer said after the Wisconsin game that he had graded Johnston at a ‘C-minus’ level through that point, citing his hang time as the primary area for improvement.
At the same time, the Ohio State offense has cost him some chances to unleash a truly massive punt. Johnston has only kicked from his own 20-yard line once – the furthest he has ever been backed up – but has punted from opposing territory five times. Furthermore, in an attempt to limit the possibility of a return, OSU coaches have made clear their preference for higher kicks with more hang time, even if it means sacrificing distance.
“If we want to go out there and watch him and ooh and ahh anytime, we can do that,” Coombs said. “At the same time, you’ll find that teams that do that have returns that are extensive. We want to cover kicks. We want to flip the field and make sure the other team doesn’t return the ball. I don’t know how many in a row we had until (the Wisconsin game), and even that return was minimal. That’s the objective. Hang time is critical, and he’s getting better there.”
Those who have worked with Johnston would agree that he still has room to grow, having seen his work back in Australia. Jordan Berry, now at Eastern Kentucky, alluded to the fact that Johnston’s best work this season – landing all six kicks against Wisconsin inside the 20 – still didn’t come close to what he’s capable of doing.
“I’ve seen a lot of potential in his leg to possibly go quite further,” Berry told BSB. “I watched the (Wisconsin) game, and he did quite well. But from what I’ve seen of him, he’s got massive potential and room to improve.”
Whether receiving praise or soliciting help, Johnston has plenty of company stateside from fellow Aussies. There are currently 10 Prokick Australia alums currently competing at the Football Bowl Subdivision level – including Joel McClellan at Akron – and a handful of others at lower NCAA levels.
“I still speak with all of them,” Johnston said. “I know about 20 or 30 guys who have come through the program, and we all keep in regular contact. It’s a great thing where we can talk to each other and be able to help each other out if there’s something going on or if we need help.”
Berry certainly made headlines on Sept. 21 when he successfully executed a punt-style pass for a first down against Morehead State. Taking advantage of a rule designed to allow offensive teams to advance blocked punts, Berry kicked to a teammate who caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage and raced to a first down.
The video certainly got its share of exposure in Columbus, with Johnston showing the video to both teammates and coaches.
“It’s good to have another Australian doing well. I saw that and I loved it,” Johnston said. “We always muck around with that back home. I kicked with him back home before I came here. We all go back home in the spring and go work out together.”
Is that a possibility at Ohio State?
“Oh, I’m not too sure,” Johnston said, laughing.
Given the results of his ill-fated run against the Wildcats, it might be awhile before Ohio State dials up the next dose of trickery for Johnston. In the meantime, he’s focusing on improving his hang time and adjusting to life in the United States.
About five months after his initial trip through the Los Angeles airport, Johnston said he’s gotten used to the volume of Americans.
Now, he’s making some noise himself.