Ohio State football: Punter Cameron Johnston keeps returns covered
The YouTube videos were full of booming punts, the kind that made Ohio State fans drool about the prodigy they believed they were getting.
Would the Buckeyes see Australian Cameron Johnston routinely send 70- or even 80-yarders flying in Ohio Stadium?
The answer so far is no, but coaches are smiling plenty about the punting and potential of the 21-year-old freshman, especially after his performance against Wisconsin.
Johnston was instrumental in a 31-24 victory. He punted six times. On five of them he pinned the Badgers at their 10-yard line or deeper. The other time, Wisconsin started at the 16.
Johnston’s last kick might have been his best. With 1½ minutes left, he unleashed a 55-yarder that was returned 3 yards to the 10, all but clinching the victory. That punt was significant for another reason. It was the only one of his 18 punts this year that has been returned at all.
Thanks to Johnston’s hang time, directional abilities and excellent efforts by Ohio State gunners to close in on returners — Devin Smith, take a bow — the punt game has been a quiet weapon for the Buckeyes. So while fans might have been expecting to see kicks that routinely send punt returners backpedaling, that’s not Ohio State’s philosophy.
“If we want to go out and watch him and ooh and ahh, any time we can do that,” special teams coach Kerry Coombs said. “But the 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.”
That will be important this week against Northwestern. Venric Mark is a dangerous returner.
Johnston is fine with that approach.
“I just do what coach (Urban) Meyer wants,” said Johnston, who is averaging 40.5 yards per punt. “That’s the aim. There’ll be a chance this year when you can actually go after one. That’ll be fun. But I’m loving it the way it is at the moment, especially with Devin and (others covering).
“You look up and he’s caught the ball and there are three or four guys in front of them. I’ve talked to guys from other teams and they say, ‘You’re pretty lucky to have that.’ It’s not like that everywhere.”
Johnston is a former Australian rules football player and he has incorporated the drop-kick used in that sport to good effect. When he’s looking for a precise distance or direction, he will drop the ball so that its nose is tilted. That allows him to apply backspin. It’s not by accident that he doesn’t have a single touchback.
Maybe the most promising thing about Johnson’s season so far is that no one — neither he nor his coaches — believes he’s close to his potential. The Wisconsin game should give him a confidence boost.
“I’ve graded him about a C-minus,” Meyer said. “His average hang time (before Wisconsin) was just under four seconds, which is completely unacceptable so I’m just seeing a little more pep in his step (now). The players love him, and so I’m hoping we see … a great deal of confidence that he can get the job done.”
Coombs said that it shouldn’t be underestimated how big the transition is, in terms of playing a sport he had never played and in living in a different culture without his family. Johnston trained for 18 months at ProKick Australia, which has become a pipeline for college teams.
But as much as ProKick runs drills to simulate game action, it’s not the same as doing it for real in front of 100,000 people.
“I think his progress has been extraordinary and very rapid,” Coombs said. “He obviously has talent, but there’s a lot more that goes into it than catching the ball and kicking the ball.
“I really like the kid. You guys understand the kind of pressure we put our players under. It’s really hard to crack that dude. He’s unique. He’s fun. I think that long-term he’s going to have a phenomenal career at Ohio State.”