The first game in which Cameron Johnston punted for Ohio State was also the first football game he had ever attended. He became a three-time All-Big Ten selection. ASSOCIATED PRESS
INDIANAPOLIS — When Ohio State and Buffalo signed a one-game agreement to open the 2013 season at Ohio Stadium, few people would have imagined the NFL implications.
Highlights of Buffalo linebacker Kahlil Mack were replayed on ESPN countless times. The game served as his introduction to NFL general managers after he embarrassed the Buckeyes with nine tackles, 2.5 sacks, and a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Unbeknownst to the 103,980 in attendance, that day doubled as a meet-and-greet for another potential newsmaker: Cameron Johnston.
“The NFL was always an end goal in the back of my mind,” Johnston said. “But when I first moved here, I wasn’t even thinking about that. You’re just trying to adjust to life in America. My first few games, I was just trying to learn the rules when I was on the sideline. My first game against Buffalo was actually the first football game I’d ever been to.”
The native of Geelong, Australia, punted three times against Buffalo for a 41.3-yard average. Johnston dropped one ball inside the 20-yard line. He would do so another 108 times in his decorated four-year career.
Johnston was bound for the University of Alabama until Johnny Townsend decommitted from Ohio State on national signing day.
An immediate fan favorite, Johnston developed into perhaps the Buckeyes’ best punter of all-time.
■ Big Ten punter of the year in 2016;
■ Ray Guy award finalist;
■ Three-time All-Big Ten honoree;
■ Owner of several school special teams records; and
■ Second-team All-American
The 5-foot-11, 198-pound Johnston averaged 44 yards per punt in his career and established a school record for punts inside the 20. He became known for his booming leg, but the ability to change field position by pinning opponents near the goal line is what Johnston hopes NFL teams focus on.
“I want to try and show that one of my strengths is being good at placing the ball,” Johnston said. “It’s a chance to show what you can do. You want to put your best foot forward to try and get a spot on a team. It’s really hard to make it as a punter because you only have one on each roster.”
As one of five punters invited to the recent NFL Combine, Johnston could become a rarity. There have only been 49 punters drafted in the past 25 years. Some have been All-Pros — Shane Lechler and Dustin Colquitt — but many have been out of the league after a few seasons, such as Ohio State’s B.J. Sander and Michigan’s Zoltan Mesko.
Punter is one of the most unpredictable positions in sports. All-Americans at most positions typically experience success in the professional ranks. Not so with punters. The risk is higher with early-round selections, but specialists present a high-stakes game of draft roulette.
“My favorite punter in the 2017 NFL draft is Austin Rehkow of Idaho, and he’s the only punter I expect to be drafted in the 2017 class,” said Eric Galko, a draft analyst for Sporting News. “That said, Johnston is one of three or four punters I expect to get late-round consideration and get a strong opportunity to earn a spot in the NFL.
“One of the biggest detractions for Johnston is his size and length, which NFL special teams coaches consider as a sign of improved distances and upside in punter. But his power as a punter and reliability in Ohio State’s biggest games over the last four years should make him viewed as a ‘safe’ punting prospect.”
Australians have inundated college football special teams units. Nathan Chapman, who spent two training camps with the Green Bay Packers, founded Prokick Australia, which grooms the country’s finest punters for locales such as Columbus; State College, Pa.; and Winston-Salem, N.C.
In all, 63 Prokick Australia grads have matriculated to American universities.
“Everyone stays in contact,” Johnston said. “You try and help the guys when they first move over. It’s really helpful how everyone is so supportive of each other.”
A long NFL career and life in the United States is what Johnston would write if his time on Earth was a fairy tale. Sometimes he has to stop and think because the former Australian Rules Football player would not have believed the chapters in his biography if he sat down five years ago and read about the future.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” Johnston said. “I loved every moment at Ohio State. It was the best decision I ever made. It was a hard decision at first because you’re going to a country where you don’t know anyone. I didn’t even know where Ohio was on a map. Great teammates and having success makes it even more enjoyable.”