It's a long way from the soccer fields of Warren to the National Football League.
And while Warren Area High School graduate Colter Johnson may not be in the NFL, he's come a long way in a short amount of time.
Johnson has wrapped us his first season punting at the Football Bowl Subdivison (FBS, formerly Division I) level with the UMass Minutemen of the Mid-American Conference (MAC). Not only was Johnson the top punter on his team, he actually led the MAC with a punting average of 43.8 yards per punt. That average was nearly five yards per kick higher than his previous career best - set in 2011 while playing for Alfred State of the National Junior College Athletic Association.
Photo submitted to the Times Observer
UMass punter Colter Johnson, a Warren Area High School graduate, punts during the Minutemen’s 52-14 loss to Western Michigan in a Mid-American Conference game played on October 6. Johnson led the MAC in punting during the 2012 season with an average punt of 43.8 yards. Johnson, a junior who spent his first two seasons at Alfred State, punted 64 times for 2,803 yards with five touchbacks, landed 16 punts inside the opponent’s 20 and collected 19 punts of 50 yards or more. His long kick traveled 66 yards.
It got him dreaming about the NFL.
"Of course I've thought about the NFL," said Johnson. "When you're in high school, everyone says you're going to go pro someday and you think 'yeah right.'
"After my second season at Alfred, my coach told me that I had skills that were as good or better than guys that have gone on to play in the (NFL)," said Johnson. "I know I have a lot of work to do, but I feel like I have the distance right now. I just need to work on my hang time. That comes with fundamentals and I feel like working with the specialists that we have here at UMass will get me there someday."
Johnson's special teams coordinator Roderick Plummer thinks that Johnson has the ability to kick at the next level.
"I definitely think Colter has an NFL leg," said Plummer. "He exceeded our expectations this season for sure. I think he needs to work on his consistency, but he's a very positive person and guys really seem to rally behind him. He's incredibly gifted at getting the ball out quickly which is of the utmost importance for a punter."
Punting in the NFL is certainly a lofty goal; no pun intended. But Johnson has set lofty goals for himself - and achieved them - throughout his punting career.
As hard as it may be to believe, Johnson almost didn't play football.
He played for Beaty in seventh and eighth grades, but was all set to participate in soccer during his freshman year at Warren Area High School.
First-year head coach Brandon Falk and Beaty football coach Corky Fry had other ideas.
"They needed a kicker, and approached me about possibly playing both sports during my freshman year," said Johnson. "I remember Falk and my soccer coach at the time (Mark Evans) sitting down and actually having a meeting about how we could make it all work."
If he wasn't playing in a soccer match, Johnson would kick before football practice on Mondays and Wednesdays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he would kick before practice, then his parents would shuttle him off to soccer practice for the remainder of the evening. With football games typically on Friday nights, Johnson was there in pads and ready to kick when called upon.
"During my freshman season all I did was kickoffs and extra points," said Johnson. "After my freshman year, I decided to give soccer up and focus solely on football. I started playing wide receiver and safety during my sophomore season and finally started punting in my junior year after Jon Zigler (who had been the team's punter) graduated."
Johnson had no trouble putting in the hard work necessary to reach the next level. Before his sophomore and junior seasons, he attended the Ray Guy prokicker.com camp in Pittsburgh. Before his senior high school season, he traveled to East Stroudsburg to participate in the Kohl's Kicking Camp. His skills had progressed so far that - by finishing among the top 40 in the nation at the Kohl's camp - Johnson was invited to participate in the National Invitational Scholarship Camp in Whitewater, Wisc.
The extra time put in was evident in his game as his high school career progressed.
"During my junior year, I tied the school record with a 47-yard field goal," said Johnson. "I also established myself in other areas of the game."
While at Warren, Johnson was on District 10 all-region all-star teams from his sophomore year on, finishing as a Region 5 first-team selection on offense, defense and special teams as a senior.
After wrapping up his career with the Dragons, Johnson took us his talents to Alfred State. However, he wasn't recruited by the NJCAA institution prior to his choosing the program.
"They actually never contacted me or anything," said Johnson. "My dad went there and wrestled in the late 1970's before moving on to Virginia Tech. I knew I wanted to do something in Agriculture and it was close to home, which was also a plus."
As both the punter and placekicker for the Pioneers, Johnson quickly became one of the team standouts. In 2010, he completed his first season with an all-conference selection. In 2011, he punted 38 times and averaged 38.9 yards per punt. His long kick was 66 yards, six punts went at least 50 yards and another six punts were downed inside the 20 yard-line. He also kicked off 55 times and averaged 55.6 yards per kick with five touchbacks. As the placekicker, Johnson was 6-of-12 in field goal attempts, including hitting four field goals in the Pioneers' Region III championship game victory. Johnson was named all-region following the 2011 season. After the 2010 season, he was named honorable mention NJCAA All-American.
After completing the 2011 season, Johnson was presented with a unique opportunity.
"UMass was bringing in a new set of coaches and looking to move to the FBS from the FCS (Division 1-AA)," said Johnson. "My coach at Alfred (Mick Caba) had a lot of great connections and actually put my name out there to (UMass head coach) Charley Molnar. Coach Molnar wanted to see a highlight film, so we put one together and got it to him. He liked what he saw and I loved the campus from the first time I visited; I decided it was time to make the move and try something else."
Johnson's previous status as an NJCAA athlete meant he could transfer to UMass and play immediately without having to sit out a year.
"It was difficult to leave Alfred State," added Johnson. "I had more friends there because of the smaller campus size and I was moving a lot further from home. But I knew it was time to move on. This was an opportunity I couldn't pass up."
Upon arriving at UMass, Johnson quickly learned that nothing is the same at the FBS level.
"At Alfred, things stayed busy during the season, but during the offseason we'd only meet a couple of times and spring football wasn't too extensive," he said. "At UMass it's an entirely different story. During the week it's meetings and film sessions and full-pad practices everyday from 3:30 to 6 p.m. The offseason is so much more extensive and I think that's going to help my game a lot going into next season."
Practice time isn't the only thing that's changed.
"At Alfred State, I was playing in front of smaller crowds than some Warren games," said Johnson. "Now I'm playing in front of tens of thousands of fans. We fly to every away game and every home game this season was played at Gillette Stadium (home of the NFL's New England Patriots). We get police escorts to each and every game we play. That didn't happen much in Warren or at Alfred State."
Johnson added that the speed of the game and its increase from NJCAA play to the FBS level is "absolutely incredible."
The "culture shock" of transferring to big-time college football didn't seem to affect Johnson. Although, he did have some minor setbacks along the way.
"My very first punt at the Division I level was blocked and returned for a touchdown," said Johnson. "After that, I figured there was nowhere to go but up, and I was able to punt again later that game. I got a better punt off that time and that took care of a lot of the nerves."
Johnson would go on to have one of the best punting seasons the MAC has ever seen. He led the conference in punting average with an average of 43.8 yards per kick. All told, he punted 64 times for 2,803 yards with five touchbacks, 16 punts inside the opponent's 20 and 19 punts of 50 yards or more. His long kick traveled 66 yards.
One of Johnson's fondest memories of his first season at UMass was punting at "The Big House" - Michigan Stadium - during the Minutemen's 63-13 loss to the Wolverines on September 15. Over 110,000 people attended the game, including some all the from here.
"I wasn't really too nervous despite how big the crowd was," said Johnson. "But there was one time at I was kicking from the end zone right in front of the student section. That may be the loudest sound I've ever heard in my life."
Johnson's best memory of his junior season was offered without hesitation.
"The game against Akron where we earned our first win is at the top of the list," he said. "I was playing as close to home as we did all season and things just went perfectly from start to finish."
The Minutemen earned their first win at the FBS level with the 22-14 win over the Zips - a team that included Eisenhower High School graduate Mitch Straight, a starting offensive lineman. The victory was UMass' only triumph of the season and Johnson had a huge hand in the win. He punted six times total and four of his six punts were downed inside the Akron 10 yard-line, including back-to-back punts stopped at the Akron 1. His overall punting average for the game was 44.8 yards with a long of 53. For his efforts, Johnson was named MAC Special Teams Player of the the Week - and earned high praise from his head coach Molnar.
"Colter Johnson has to be not only the best punter in the MAC, he's got to be one of the best in the country," UMass head football coach Charley Molnar told the Boston Globe. "I say it over and over again, this guy is about as good as it gets."
Johnson hopes there are more days like that in his future.
"It's been a pretty wild ride so far and I hope it's not finished yet," said Johnson. "I feel like I still have room to improve and that I can get better with some more work under my belt."