If the sophomore punter is waiting to take a snap, Buckeye fans are either lamenting what could have been on a third down play or wishing that the coaching staff would attempt a fourth down conversion. Maybe they should be paying closer attention to Johnston, a punter capable of making a play just as impactful as a fourth down conversion.
Johnston has averaged 45.29 yards per punt, giving the Buckeyes the sixth-best mark in the country in that regard. He has frequently flipped the field this season, forcing Ohio State opponents to start from inside their own 26-yard line, the best of any team in the country.
The Australian said that he doesn’t focus on changing the game when he takes the field, but rather just doing his job.
“I just try to keep it pretty simple,” he said. “Wherever I am, I just trying to aim it. The aim is to get it inside the 10-yard line, around the 8-yard line whenever you get a chance try to pin them back there. If you’re backed up you get a chance to go after it, you try to go after it and get good yardage out of it.”
Johnston has placed 25 of his 45 punts inside the 20-yard line this year (53.3 percent) against just five touchbacks, while 14 of his boots have been fair caught. His efforts have helped Ohio State allow just 5.8 yards per punt return and the Buckeyes have not surrendered a punt return touchdown this season.
While that is not just a product of Johnston’s big leg (his long punt this season is 73 yards), the dependability of the punter fuels an aggressive punt coverage unit, special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs said.
“(Johnston) has had a great year and that’s what we need him to do is be consistent in where the ball goes,” he said. “We’d be very hopeful that he is going to do that this week.”
With one exception – a short punt from his own end zone that had unfortunate backspin on it – Johnston did everything he needed to in the Buckeyes win over Alabama. Even with that 21-yarder his six punts traveled an average of 46.5 yards with two being downed inside the 20.
The Buckeyes will be looking for a similar effort in the CFP National Title Game against Oregon, though the Ducks boast a more dangerous punt return unit than did the Crimson Tide.
Oregon is 12th in the country in punt return average with 12.89 yards per return. They have two returns for touchdowns this season and two different players, wide receivers Charles Nelson and Johnathan Loyd, have punt returns of 50 or more yards this season.
“They have great, skilled athletes at the returner position and you’ve got to have a lot of guys running down the field,” Coombs said. “They’ve got to defeat blocks at the line of scrimmage, they’ve got to beat blocks on their way down the field and they’ve got to finish the play when they get there. If you don’t those guys are incredibly dangerous in that phase of the game. We’ve got to make sure that every kid on the punt team understands that.”
So far this season, they have. The Buckeyes have allowed just one return all year of 20 yards or more, though it was costly. In Ohio State’s lone loss this season Virginia Tech’s Greg Stroman returned a Johnston punt 35 yards, setting up a Hokie touchdown. Since then, though, only five of his 37 punts have even been returned with a long of just 10 yards.
Johnston said he doesn’t look at the numbers much, especially when talking about the oppositions return game, but rather just focusses on his job.
“I’ll just try to keep it simple and do my job and make sure I do it well,” he said.
While Ohio State fans may not love it when the team needs to use the Aussie, they should appreciate what Johnston can do when called upon.