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October 2, 2013

Johnston worth the journey

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Kerry Coombs said the directive from Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was simple, but firm.

"He said, 'Go find your punter now. I don't care where you find him, I don't care where you get him. Go find your punter," he recalled.

So, the Ohio State special teams coordinator and cornerbacks coach embarked on a quest to bring a punter worthy of Meyer's eye.

"Our job is to find the best of them. And our job is not to limit that search to anywhere," Coombs said. "Obviously, we look through the state of Ohio for all of our players first, but beyond that -- in the situation we were in -- coach Meyer was pretty clear about all of our responsibilities."

And thus, the journey began.

"We looked everywhere," Coombs said. "And I mean everywhere."

It's not an exaggeration.

For Coombs, everywhere meant scouring a land across continents, across oceans to bring a kid to kick a football up in the air every so often on Saturday afternoons and evenings.

Everywhere meant literally everywhere. Then -- finally -- everywhere meant more than 10,000 miles away from Columbus.

"We got film coming in from all different avenues and one of the avenues is Australia," Coombs said. And those kids have had success here -- for whatever reason. There's about 13 of them right now in the NCAA and they've had success. So you take a look at all of them and that was exhausting and tiresome and you don't really know what you're looking at.

"And then you're trying to figure out what kind of person it is, what kind of kid it is, how's he going to be able to manage this. Well this kid happened to be 21. He happened to have already played Australian rules football. He had a lot of those things going on."

His name, as Coombs would find out, was Cameron Johnston, a native of Geelong, Australia, which sits about an hour outside Melbourne.

Now came the hard part.

"So there's all these phone calls and you still don't have a name with a face, you watch the video and then you got to bring him here and you got to visit with him," Coombs said.

"You go to spend time with him, try and find out if he's got that inner-character because that's a different deal now to go out there and catch that snap all by your lonesome and kick with a bunch of guys running at you when you've never even put a helmet on."

As it turns out, Johnston -- who was named the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week for his performance against Wisconsin -- was game.

An Australian Rules Football player, the concept of punting a football was old hat for the freshman.

"That's a regular kick to be able to kick that up in the air and land it inside the 20," Johnston said. "That's what we do back home in the sport."

And in a 31-24 win against the Badgers Saturday, Johnston's ability to do that appeared instrumental in forcing a Wisconsin offense propelled normally by its powerful running attack to drive the length of the field.

Most notably, with a 17-point lead in tow during enter the game's fourth quarter, Johnston delivered.

"We were playing plan to win which is field position football. Every time we had the ball was near the midfield area, and we have a very good punter, very good punt team," Meyer said. "I trust our guys we are going to down that ball and we are going to make them drive it 90 yards."

All of Johnston's six punts -- which averaged almost 40 yards a kick -- pinned the Badgers inside their own 20-yard line.

What gets his coaches most excited, though, is how four of those punts resulted in fair catches.

"His last punt was a four, five, six (second) hang time and that's what we expect all the time," Meyer said.

It's part of a greater framework that values the time of the ball in the air over how far it travels.

While Ohio State ideally wants both things to happen, an emphasis on booming kicks isn't part of the philosophy.

"If we want to go out there and watch him and ooh and ahh anytime we can do that. But at the same time, you'll find the teams that do that have returns that are extensive," Coombs said. "We want to cover kicks. We want to flip the field and make sure the other team doesn't return the ball that's the objective and hang time is critical and he's getting better there."

Johnston agreed.

"I just got to keep working on it I think I'm happy with it enough at the moment I can be pretty precise with the drop punts," he said, "but I just got to keep working on it."

Against the Badgers, it meant having a very real effect in the game's outcome.

And now, with a night time showdown set for Saturday against No. 16 Northwestern, it's probably reasonable to think such an outing will be not only be welcomed, but expected.



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