From Australia to NFL: long journey for Texans' Cameron Johnston

ARLINGTON -- The long pathway for Cameron Johnston booming punts with incredible hangtime in the NFL was separated by continents.

The distance fromthe Texans’ new punter’s hometown, Geelong in the state of Victoria in Australia, a port city located on Corio Bay and the Barwon River southwest of Melbourne, to Houston: 9,018 miles.

Long before the former Australian rules football player emerged as one of the top punters in the NFL, Johnston had to accept that it was time to walk away from the sport he grew up loving.

After being drafted by the Melbourne Football Club and playing sparingly for the Casey Scorpions, an affiliate lower division team, Johnston was delisted by the club at the age of 19. He decided to take up American football in 2012.

Mentored by prolific coach Nathan Chapman at Prokick Australia, Johnston listened closely and went from a novice with minimal knowledge in 2012 of how to punt a football to earn a scholarship to Ohio State where he became the Big Ten Conference Punter of the Year and a finalist for the Ray Guy award. 

Now, Johnston is playing for the Texans after earning his second NFL contract, a three-year, $8 million deal signed this spring as the replacement for Bryan Anger.

Johnston credits Chapman, a former Green Bay Packers punter who has worked with Jordan Berry and Michael Dickson, among several others, for his strong development as a punter.

New York Giants v Philadelphia Eagles

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“I’m loving it,” said Johnston, who had a 47.0 career average with the Philadelphia Eaglesbefore joining the Texans. “It was the best decision I’ve ever made to come over here. It’s all because of Nathan Chapman. He does an amazing job. There was no pathway for guys over there and he created one.”

Beyond Chapman’s expert tutelage, strong willpower and a powerful leg have propelled Johnston, 29, to this stage of his football career.

At 5-foot-11, 194 pounds, Johnston is packed with muscle and delivers soaring punts. He never seems to get tired and he has an aggressive mentality on punt coverage.

“He puts on a show out there for sure,” Texans kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn said. “Punting and his leg strength, he's got that Aussie strength. So, it's fun to watch.”

Johnston is smaller in stature than long snapperJon Weeks is accustomed to, causing him to alter his trajectory on snaps. They’re getting into sync quickly, though.

“A great punter, strong leg, has all the kicks,” Weeks said. “Might be the shortest punter I've ever snapped to. Most of my guys have been kind of big. 

"My adjustment, if I'm being 100 percent honest, was just learning to change the release point a little bit. But it's been a seamless transition. Cam is fantastic to work with. I'm looking forward to the season Cam is going to have for us.”

Signed to a contract that includes $3 million guaranteed with a $1 million signing bonus, Johnston had a 46.7 average last season. Instead of being retained with a restricted free agent tender after a 41.87 net average the past three seasons, Johnston hit free agency. Texans first-year general manager Nick Caserio moved quickly, reaching a fast agreement with Johnston to join the AFC South franchise.

“That’s the goal,” Johnston said. “You want to get to the second contract and just keep playing well. Every year you get to keep playing is an amazing thing. I just want to keep getting better every day.”

Now, Johnston is thenew holder for Fairbairn andenjoying working with him, Weeks and special-teams coordinator Frank Ross.

“Just to play for coach Ross, he's amazing,” Johnston said. “What he was selling with the guys when he got down here, the speed on the outside, it's incredible to come down and be able to work with Jon and Ka'imi. It's a good time to be down here.”

Johnson won a national championship with the Buckeyes in 2014 and became an All-Big Ten Conference selection after being named a second-team freshman All-American. He averaged 44.9 yards per punt during his four years in Columbus, Ohio.

At the NFL scouting combine, Johnston ran the 40-yard dash in 4.92 seconds. He still went undrafted before signing with the Eagles. He had to adjust his mechanics. While he flashed natural ability, Johnston was cut by the Eagles during his first try at the NFL.

So, Johnston returned to Australia to work out with Chapman to upgrade his fundamentals.

Heknew he needed to strive for more consistency, something the Texans still want to see from him on a more regular basis.

During his preseason debut with the Texans, Johnston averaged 44.8 yards on four punts with a 39.5 net average and a long punt of 51 yards.

“Obviously, he's got a big leg,” Texans coach David Culley said of Johnston. “The thing that we want to improve on, and we talked about this with our special teams group, is that a lot of times when we are directional punting, it's got to be punted the right spot. We weren't as consistent at doing that in this past game and we’ve got to get better at doing that.

“We know he's got a big leg, but it's more than just having a big leg and kicking the ball 50 yards down the field. Directional punts and those kind of things, we‘re not there yet in getting that done.”

Johnston has worked diligently on his conditioning, diet, leg and core strength and flexibility. His work habits are top-notch.

“Consistency is the main thing,” Johnston said. “You’ve got to have the same routine, make sure you get your work in and be in the best condition possible.”

Johnston is known for his feisty style and aggressive nature covering punts. He was once flagged for a personal foul for body slamming New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara, firing up the Eagles' players and going viral on social media.

“I heard he actually hit him pretty well,” Weeks said. “I haven't seen the video, so to me it's all circumstantial right now. When I see the video of Cam taking out Kamara, I'll be impressed. If you watch the tape, any time Cam punts the ball, he's the first one down in coverage. He's a great athlete and I expect big things.”

Johnston is preparing for the Texans’ first game against the Jacksonville Jaguars against his former college coach Urban Meyer.

“That will be good, I’m looking forward to seeing Urban,” Johnston said. “He’ll do great. He’s a very good coach.”

Working and living away from where he grew up, Johnston is grateful for his NFL employment. As far as he’s traveled, Johnston has learned to appreciate the journey.

“It’s all good,” he said. “I’m so happy to be here. I’ve always been able to kick a ball a long way.”

Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.

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