Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is no expert on Australian rules football, but he’s picked up some of the intricacies of the game since signing Cameron Johnston, a 21-year-old punter whose previous experience as an athlete was in that rugby-style sport.
“The way they pass in Australian rules football is they kick it to them,” Meyer said. “If you want to run a square in, he can probably hit you with a punt.”
Johnston’s kicking skills won’t do the Buckeye offense much good, but the defense should benefit from favorable field position because of his knack for accurate placements.
Not only does he have a booming leg, but the OSU staff says he can land the ball at specific targets like a pro golfer with a wedge in his hands.
OSU special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs, who also coaches cornerbacks, called Johnston “special, special, special. … He can rugby kick the ball inside the 10. He can kick the ball legitimately as far as you want him to kick it. And he can kick it as high as you want him to kick it.
“He hasn’t played in front of 107,000 people with a bunch of guys in shoulders pads running at him to kill him. As long as he can handle that — and all the background stuff we did before he got here indicates he can — he’ll be a great addition to our team.”
The red-haired Johnston showed up on the Buckeyes’ doorstep at a time when they were desperate for a punter. Ben Buchanan had graduated, and a 2013 recruit de-committed just before Signing Day. Kicker Drew Basil was preparing to pull double duty, which isn’t ideal.
Johnston was part of Prokick Austrailia, a program that prepares athletes to kick for U.S. college teams. About 20 have made the transition to America, including Alex Dunnachie, who averaged 46.2 yards per boot for Hawaii last season, and Tom Hornsey, who averaged 43.4 for Memphis.
To be admitted, participants have to produce at least a 45-yard punt on their first try, and Johnston easily covered that.
Prokick Australia director Nathan Chapman, a former punter who had NFL tryouts, makes the contact with colleges himself, and Johnston, who spent about 18 months in the program, picked OSU over Alabama.
“I always wanted to come to Ohio State, and if they offered me, I knew I would say yes,” Johnston said. “I was thrilled (to get an offer). To be able to come one of the best universities, it was an easy decision to say yes to coach Meyer.”
Johnston’s teammates needle him not only about his accent from Down Under, but also about whether he’s ready to handle the rigors of American football. He bristles at that.
“I don’t think some of them would want to play Australian League Football because they would have to run a lot,” he said.
“They’re totally different sports. The size of the guys here is ridiculous. I’ve never seen so many big boys. Back home, we have guys 6-7 or 6-8, but they’re more slimmed down because they’re running a lot. You’re running 8-10 miles a game.”
Buchanan struggled last year with hang time and distance, averaging 41.0 yards per punt. Based on his Prokick audition tape, Johnston will have no issues in either department.
A versatile athlete, he’ll also allow the Buckeyes to put some fake punts into their repertoire.
“He’s a really talented punter,” Meyer said. “He’s very athletic and fast. … He’s a grown man playing the game of college football, which is kind of fun to coach.”
Making a move: Ohio State released its first depth chart Tuesday, and the biggest surprise was that junior Evan Spencer has moved into a starting wide receiver spot ahead of junior Devin Smith, the team’s second-leading pass-catcher a year ago.
Of course, a lot will depend on how the Buckeyes line up for their first play against Buffalo on Saturday. They could go with multiple receivers. But the coaches have been raving about Spencer, and he’s definitely made a big jump since last season.
Among area players, H-back Jalin Marshall and defensive end Rashad Frazier of Middletown and cornerback Cam Burrows of Trotwood-Madison all made the two-deep, although not as starters.
Quarterback Braxton Miller (Wayne) leads an area contingent in the starting lineup that also includes right tackle Taylor Decker (Vandalia-Butler), safety C.J. Barnett (Northmont) and defensive tackle Michael Bennett (Centerville).
Captain vote: Meyer said on the Big Ten teleconference Tuesday the players have already voted on captains but he’s not ready to name them yet. He wants more time to think it over because of an abundance of quality candidates, which means he might have a few full-time captains and then rotate others from week to week.
Who: Ohio State vs. Buffalo
Where: Ohio Stadium
When: noon, Saturday
TV/Radio: ESPN2/WING-AM (1410)