While the Eagles played their way through the regular season and the playoffs, ultimately winning Super Bowl LII, Cameron Johnston was in Columbus, Ohio running a gym and preparing for another chance to be an NFL punter. It didn’t take long after the 2017 season ended for Johnston to get another shot, and this time he intends to take the next step.
Johnston, an All-American punter at Ohio State who was a Ray Guy Award finalist (given to the nation’s top punter) in his senior year when he had a 46.7-yard gross average to rank fifth in the country, 24 fair catches in 56 punts, 26 inside the 20-yard line, and only five touchbacks, is the lone punter on the Eagles’ roster. He was here last summer and Johnston did well, averaging nearly 45 yards per attempt in the preseason and holding on field goal attempts.
The Eagles kept veteran Donnie Jones last season, and Jones went on to have a brilliant campaign. Then Jones retired – and has since unretired and is free to sign with any team in the NFL. In the meantime, Johnston is here. He’s the guy, about as much of “The Guy” as you can be in mid-May. There’s a long way to go before the 53-man roster is set.
Anything can happen at perhaps the one true “unknown” position on the Eagles’ roster.
For Johnston, it’s a day-to-day thing. It’s actually a kick-to-kick thing.
“What you learn is that it’s all about consistency,” Johnston said during the team’s Rookie Minicamp at the NovaCare Complex. “I felt good about how I performed last summer, what I learned. Every day, you’re learning so much. Donnie was really helpful so it was beneficial to have that experience and then take what I learned in the spring and summer and use it throughout the year as I prepared for another chance.
“I want to be the most consistent punter I can be. I went out to Ohio and used the football facility at Ohio State and also football fields in the area and kicked three times a week and worked on the little things. To be able to learn last year and now know what to expect, it makes a huge difference. I feel like I’m in a good place, but I’m always trying to be better.”
Johnston has been kicking his entire life, but he’s still relatively new to the American football thing. Born in Geelong, Australia, Johnston played Australian Rules Football as a youth and was actually drafted by the Melbourne Demons of the Australian Football League in 2010 (52nd overall selection). But he came to America to play this version of football and has made steady progress, including setting an Ohio State record with 109 punts dropped inside the 20-yard line.
The touch, clearly, is there for Johnston. The promise is enormous.
“Kids here grow up throwing the football,” Johnston said. “I grew up kicking it.”
The Eagles are impressed. Johnston handled all the punting duties last spring during Organized Team Activities while Jones was away from the NovaCare Complex and worked out some of his inconsistencies. He then had the strong performances in the preseason, averaging 44.9 gross yards (43 yards net) on 15 punts, with three inside the 20-yard line and only nine total return yards allowed.
A year later, Johnston has, ahem, a leg up on the competition for a roster spot.
"He can manipulate the football really like very few," special teams coordinator Dave Fipp told reporters last spring. "At this time of year, you can't play football, but what you can do is find out what these guys can do and what they can't do. ... And then as a coach you're really charged with 'How can I make this player the best player he can be?' "
The answer, by allowing him to kick and kick and kick and work on the details and smooth them out and build mechanical memory.
“I’m in a much different place now,” Johnston said, “than I was last year, but there is always room for improvement. I’m not sure anyone is ever completely satisfied, but that’s my goal.”
The other part of the job responsibility is replacing Jones as the holder on field goals. Jones, of course, was one of the game’s best, and his skills helped the Eagles keep their field goal operation on point through a changing 2017 when Rick Lovato replaced the traded Jon Dorenbos as the long snapper prior to the start of the regular season and Jake Elliott replaced the injured Caleb Sturgis after Week 1. Johnston held in college at Ohio State and he held through the preseason last summer.
He’s got some experience. Just like the punting part of the job, it’s all about doing it right the same way every time.
“I’m working on it,” Johnston said. “It’s something I feel comfortable with. I’m confident doing it. Day by day we’re working on that part of it, too. Like I said about punting, it’s all about consistency. You want to have it right every time because if you don’t have the tilt where you need it to be, it can alter what Jake’s doing. That’s what this time of the year is for, to keep working on the little things.”
The little things are adding up for Johnston, who clearly is getting his chance to impress the Eagles. We’re a long ways away from September, but every day he gets better - and closer - to filling the very clear void on the Eagles’ roster.