In back-to-back seasons, the Oakland Raiders fielded two punters who swapped their respective collegiate narratives once they became pros.
This past season, undrafted rookie A.J. Cole went from hang-time short specialist at North Carolina State to booming distance booter in with the Raiders. Before him, fifth-round pick Johnny Townsend went from big-legged bomber at Florida to shank master in Oakland. That lead to Townsend only getting one season as the Raiders specialist before Cole won the punting competition between him and Townsend and showcased his leg in 2019.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Cole was called upon 67 times his rookie year and racked up 3,081 yards (19th out of 31 qualifiers) and finished 16th an average of 46.0 yards per boot. He drilled the third-longest punt of the season (74 yards) on the year and 33 of his kicks landed inside the 20 (ranking 5th).
Compare that to his predecessor — Townsend sported a 43.2 average (31st out of 32 qualifiers), 17 inside the 20 (tied for 28th) — and it’s not difficult to see why Cole won the gig outright in training camp and preseason tilts.
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“I think Townsend has got his hands full with A.J. Cole,” Gruden said after the Raiders first preseason game this past year. “It’s going to be interesting down the stretch. Cole proved he could kick off, which adds to his versatility. He downed them inside the 20, I think, a couple of times. He put on a display the other day against the Rams. We haven’t seen kicks like that since [Shane] Lechler was here, or [Marquette] King.
“This guy really has a live leg, and it looks like he can directional punt, hold, so Townsend has his hands full. We like Townsend, too. It’ll be a battle the next couple weeks.”The inconsistent Townsend didn’t last much longer getting waxed as Cole’s foothold on the position was strengthened by a more consistent performance.
“To me, it just meant that they believe in what I can do,” Cole said after being told he won the gig in early August. “They believe I can be a difference maker in this league. Now, I’ve just got to go out there. I don’t have to try to do anything crazy. I just have to be myself.”
Cole provided a much-needed special teams lift as the opposition wasn’t afforded quality field position when Townsend was the punter. Instead of watching punts sail wayward and short, return men had to wait and eye the ball in the sky.
Yet, as with every rookie — drafted or not — it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for Cole. He ranked 26th out of 31 qualifiers with a paltry net average of 39.4. He also tied for third most touchbacks with six and was charged with the second most return yard average (10.6).
The return average can be buoyed by more depth on the special team coverage unites (injured decimated the unit), but the net average and lessening touchbacks fall squarely on Cole. However, considering where the Raiders were at the position when Townsend was the starter to now with Cole, the team is in much better shape as it readies for its inaugural campaign in Las Vegas.
The team is no longer rolling snake eyes, thanks to an undrafted free agent rookie who came to camp as an invite and earned a contract.
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