On a typical practice day, Jake Elliott, Cameron Johnston, and Rick Lovato walk off the field and disappear.
They arrive together and they leave together. The "operation" is all for one and one for all. When it's time to jump back into the practice scene, they emerge from the NovaCare Complex to get their kicking game on.
But who notices? This year, not many. It's quiet on the special teams front for the Eagles, and that's great news. Elliott in his third season here and is an established placekicker with range and consistency and ice in his veins. Lovato has become a make-it-good every time long snapper by working tirelessly at his craft. And Johnston? Well, all Johnston has done is earn every bit of confidence from the coaching staff by building his consistency over the years to the point where he's the only punter in this camp and … he's … not … a … story.
Not a story?
"Thank you. I'll take that," Johnston said, laughing. "I don't really think about it, of course. I'm here to do my best job every day. I know that the guys upstairs are always keeping their eyes open with every position. If I'm not doing my job, I'm going to know about it."
There isn't a peep to say about the Eagles' kicking game, which is remarkable in the NFL. The team has made the transition over the years – remember how tough it was to find consistency at placekicker after David Akers left? – and the new operation is humming smoothly.
Johnston's story is one that blends talent with hard work and dedication. After an All-American career at Ohio State, Johnston signed on with the Eagles as a rookie free agent in 2017 to challenge Donnie Jones for the punting job. Johnston showed enormous promise, but not enough to unseat Jones for the job. After the Super Bowl LII victory, Jones retired from the NFL (he has since unretired and is in Los Angeles with the Chargers) and the Eagles turned to Johnston.
Last spring, Johnston was very much a work in progress. He kept pushing and working and perfecting his technique and by the time the 2018 preseason rolled around, Johnston was booming his kicks, improving his direction, and fine-tuning his touch.
He won the job.
"Yeah, that was a great feeling but you don't ever get too comfortable in this profession and you can never be perfect," Johnston said. "When I was here two years ago, it was a great learning experience. Donnie is such a great punter who has seen everything in the NFL. I felt I improved every day, but it wasn't enough. I just kept working at it. I felt I had the talent, but I had to be more consistent with my technique and with my performance."
At Ohio State, Johnston did what many college kickers do to take advantage of the rules there – he took a few steps to his right before kicking the football essentially on the run. In college, the players on the punting team can release downfield prior to when the ball is kicked, so those two or three steps gave the coverage team time to get down the field.
Nobody is taking steps in the NFL. The goal is to get the football kicked as quickly as possible.
"It was a bit of a difference from college to the NFL, but once I got here it became a matter of refining my technique," Johnston said. "I've worked hard at it, and having Rick snapping it on point every time, it's made such a huge difference. We're working really well together."
Johnston also serves as the holder for Elliott on field goals and he's gained a huge level of comfort with the job responsibilities. This is a well-oiled machine that is ready for the regular season. Johnston kicks every other day in Training Camp – 14 punts in the practices plus another couple of dozen on the side – and Elliott does the same. The workload isn't insane, but the demand for perfection sure is.
In his first NFL season, all Johnston did was set an Eagles record for both gross punting average (48.1 yards) and net punting average (42.7 yards), ranking third and fourth in the entire NFL in those categories, respectively.
He thinks he has improved since then.
And that's why the dozens of reporters who cover the Eagles on a daily basis don't spend much time around Johnston. There isn't any drama here, folks.
"I guess that's the way we like it," Johnston said. "We're just out there doing our jobs, so maybe it's boring. We have a lot of time to make sure we recover – get in the cold tub and things like that. Basically, when we're not kicking, we like to stay out of the way. We don't want anyone to worry about us. We're going to do our jobs and make sure we take care of what we can control. After that, there's no point in worrying about what we can't control."