COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — There are many college football players who don’t like Saturday night games.
Cameron Johnston is not one of them.
The Ohio State punter welcomes the fourth-ranked Buckeyes’ second consecutive primetime game this week, this one at No. 16 Northwestern, because it makes it a whole lot easier on his parents back in Geelong, Australia.
“We had an 8 o’clock game (last week), so that was Sunday morning at 10 a.m. for them,” he said. “It saved them because the other games at 12 o’clock noon, they were up at 2 in the morning.”
With his folks glued to the TV, the 21-year-old punted six times for a 39.8-yard average — pinning Wisconsin inside its own 20 on each one. It was a huge factor in the Buckeyes’ 31-24 victory and earned him the Big Ten player of the week honors on special teams.
The 21-year-old Aussie has a knack for putting backspin on his punts, allowing him to pinpoint his punts rather than have them bound end-over-end into the end zone.
“He’s actually better at that than driving it,” coach Urban Meyer said. “His last punt was a 4.5- or 4.6-seconds hang time and that’s what we expect all the time. He’s a very valuable weapon for us. He’s a freshman, too, so we’ve got him for a long time.”
How Johnston came to Ohio State is an epic story on its own.
With Ohio State’s punter graduating after last season, Meyer turned to special-teams and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs with a simple directive: “Go find your punter. I don’t care where you find him, go find your punter.”
Coombs and the rest of Ohio State’s coaches scoured the Buckeye state but didn’t find a suitable replacement. They spread the search to no avail. Then Coombs watched a video supplied by a punting and kicking coach in Australia who had sent several players to American colleges. He was intrigued.
“So you take a look at all of them,” Coombs said. “That was exhausting and tiresome. You don’t really know what you’re looking at. Then you’re trying to figure out what kind of a person it is, how is he going to be able to manage this? This (one) kid happened to be 21, he happened to already have played Australian Rules Football. He had a lot of those things going on.
“So there’s all these phone calls and you still don’t have a name with a face.”
So Ohio State decided to bring Johnston in for an official visit, even though he had little experience with the American version of football and the coaching staff had never really seen him punt with people running at him trying to block the kick.
After meeting him and going over their options, he was offered a scholarship before he left on the daylong flight home.
So far, it’s been a perfect fit. With the Buckeyes hanging on to a seven-point lead with 1:29 left against Wisconsin, he came through with a 55-yard punt that was downed at the Badgers 10.
“As anyone would expect, for somebody from not just a small school or something like that but from a completely foreign environment to come into this environment and have to perform is going to take a little bit of time,” Coombs said. “His development has been extraordinary and very rapid. He obviously has talent, but there’s a lot more that goes into being the punter, particularly here, than just talent, just being able to catch a ball and kick it. He had a great game on Saturday, but I believe that there are better days ahead for him.”
Johnston has adapted off the field as well.
He said Americans have only had two misconceptions about people from the land Down Under: that Aussies are always putting shrimp on the barbie, and that they only drink Foster’s beer.
“That’s not even brewed in Australia anymore,” he said with a laugh.
Now if his teammates and best friends could just understand everything he says.
They nod and smile politely, but then they walk away trying to figure out what he just said in his unique accent.
“No one really makes fun of him, but clearly the way he talks is funny,” receiver Corey Brown said. “Sometimes coach Meyer will joke around with him a little bit. He’s well respected on this team, especially with the way he punts the ball.”
Johnston has yet to visit an Outback Steakhouse. Maybe that’s why his biggest communication problem is in restaurants.
“The waitress will end up asking you about four to five times what you ordered,” he said with a grin. “Then you just get your friend to tell her.”
That’s about the only thing he’s needed help with at Ohio State.