In the lead up to the 2010 draft period, Geelong Falcon Cameron Johnston was asked what his strengths as a footballer were. His response was, “I can run a 2.8 in a 20m sprint and continuously drop punt a ball 60m. My main strength is that I can play in a number of positions.”
The Melbourne Football Club agreed and chose Johnston with its fourth pick in the 2011 Rookie Draft. Three years later Johnston is about to walk into a packed arena and kick a football in front of more than 100 thousand screaming fans.
Without filling in the gaps you might expect that packed arena is the MCG and the occasion is an AFL finals series. But you don’t have to be an ardent football fan to know that isn’t the case for the Demons, and not even the most ardent have heard of Johnston.
The reality is that when Johnston made the summation of his footballing strengths he didn’t know how apt his statement was, particularly the nod to his versatility. Because when he was delisted after a single season with Melbourne, he completed a transition into not just another position but another sport.
Following in the footsteps of childhood friends Jamie Keehn (LSU) and Tom Hornsby (Memphis) Johnston traded the kangaroo hide for pigskin, trying his hand, or foot, at American football as a Punter.
He first kicked an American football in March 2012 and 15 months later Johnston had a full scholarship to Ohio State University. This week he makes his debut for the Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium in Columbus in front of 102 thousand people.
Ohio State Football won’t mean much to most Aussies, the transition from AFL to the NFL is becoming more common and there are more than 20 young Aussies punting in the NCAA, but Johnston’s progress is groundbreaking.
You see Ohio State isn’t any old school football program. It’s one of the best and for those in the know, it’s BIG10 baby. In fact ESPN voted Ohio State the third most prestigious college football program in history.
While Johnston’s versatility provide the impetus to change sports, it’s his cannon of a right leg sealing the deals.
Johnston caught the attention of college football programs with a mix tape, featuring punts of more than 60 yards and with at least 4.5 seconds hang time, every time. That’s elite, anything over 50 yards is good but 60 yards is special.
Consequently, Johnston had Ohio State and the back-to-back NCAA Champions Alabama Crimson Tide both clamoring from his services.
The decision to sign with Ohio State was an easy one after a two-day official visit, but actually putting pen to paper was a little less simplistic. Alabama loomed a likely destination when Ohio State elected to go with a local punter, but when he chose to go to Florida at the last minute, they chose to go with a boy from Aus.
Johnston credits the success of his transition to former Brisbane and Hawthorn defender and founder of Prokick, Nathan Chapman. Prokick is a program specialising in teaching young Aussies to adapt the kicking technique honed in backyards around Australia to that of an American punter.
He brought the raw ingredient of power, but execution speed and the combination between hang-time and height was harder to find. However, he admits execution speed is easier to achieve with a 300-pound defensive linesman on the charge.
“You’ve only got the 1.9 seconds from the time the ball is snapped to you before you’ve got to kick it.”
“I was able to kick drop punts 65-70 metres quite comfortably…but you realize here it’s a combination of the hang time and distance, if you kick it too long, with these blokes if they catch it they are bringing it back twice as fast, because your guys cant get down there.”
Chapman believes Johnston brought the right skill-set to the position and it was a matter of time and fine-tuning before his booming drop punt, became a booming punt.
“To make it onto an AFL list you need to be a quality athlete and most of those guys have attributes we could adapt to get them to the college level.
“What guys need to realise is that you don’t have to be the biggest kick on the team to make it, we will make you the biggest kick” – Nathan Chapman from prokick.
“What guys need to realise is that you don’t have to be the biggest kick on the team to make it, we will make you the biggest kick.”
He says there is an abundance of young Aussies who could make the transition from Aussie Rules to American football, whether they have played AFL or not.
“We’ve a lot of kids in massive football programs in the US who are 5ft 11, small guys who didn’t play AFL, didn’t necessarily have a big kick but are now on scholarship in the US and playing in front of 70, 80, 90, 100 people week in and week out.”
Johnston says he learned a lot from his year in the AFL system and was disappointed when it came to a close but it is now a distant memory and the decision to explore his options in another sport, is one he is glad he made. His advice to AFL footballers that leave the system at a young age is to “give it a try”.
“There are many people back home who could be doing this program… and there are plenty of guys that could play at college level, even if it’s not the massive schools, but even the middle of range schools to the bottom tier schools are still playing in front of 30-40 thousand people every week. It’s that big.
But it’s not just about big crowds and big legs, with a college scholarship comes a free education and the ability to study almost anything. Johnston started a degree in primary education in Australia and will continue his studies at Ohio State.
The Aussie invasion into college football is well underway. Prokick have placed 30 students now and with Alabama defensive tackle Jesse Williams and LSU punter Brad Wing signing NFL contracts for this season, the possibility of making this progression is realistic. But for Johnston’ it’s just one game and one kick at a time.
The first kick will come on August 31 when Ohio State hosts Penn State. Before 102 thousand screaming Buckeye fans coordinated in scarlet and grey, Johnston’s new life will officially begin.
“I’m pumped…it’s a whole new world.”
A day in the life
4.50AM – up
5.10AM – leave dorm
5.50AM – Work out for 2 hours – lifting and running
8AM – Breakfast
9AM – Midday – Class
Midday – Lunch
1PM – Punt and special teams meetings
4.30PM – Class
8.30PM – Bed
His new teammates…
“At first you are trying to understand them and they are trying to understand you and you get some funny names…but I think that is one of the best things about being here is that everyone helps you with what you need. I’ve had a few mates come over and they loved it and want to come back straight away.”
“The biggest one was the weight training, lifting with 18-year-old boys who are 150 kilos, but they are 6’5’’ and they can run faster than most of the AFL guys.”
“You look around and think it is physically impossible. It is just ridiculous. 18-year-old guys coming into the AFL are 6’5’’ but they are all of 80 kilos, coming here they are 110 and a ball of muscle.
“It’s something I have never seen before, it takes it to a new level. Some of the AFL teams could learn a lot from how it’s set up and the way it runs, coming from Melbourne I have learned a lot coming here it was just a whole new world.”
The college lifestyle…
“I’ve never seen a place that loves its football more than here, it’s quite funny to imagine, speaking to a lot of people at home they tried to tell me how big it would be but you get over here and it’s a whole new world. At first it was hard to get used to but now you understand and it’s good.”
“I’m up at 4.50AM, leave at 5AM, work out at 5.50, it’s a bit different, you get in there and you are pretty tired but you walk in and you’ve got the rap music blaring, it is quite funny. It’s quite different in terms of the amount of players, 100 or more; it makes you meet a lot of different people.
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Everyone keeps telling me the pre-game stuff is pretty big, it will be pretty annoying not getting to see it, but I’m sure my family and friends will love it.