It’s hard to live in the moment when one moment can define your future.
But that’s what rookie punter A.J. Cole has continued to do during his time with the Oakland Raiders; take each day one step — or punt — at a time.
Going undrafted out of NC State, Cole was given an opportunity to showcase his talent during the Raiders’ rookie minicamp, and his only focus was to finish the camp as a better punter than when he started. There was no expectation of contract discussions; all he wanted was a chance to prove to himself and the coaching staff he had the talent to compete at the NFL level.
“I really was just going in there trying to take it as a learning experience,” he told reporters during the first week of training camp. “I didn’t really have a lot of anticipation that a contract would come out of it. I know that when you go to rookie minicamp and there’s 60-70 guys there and maybe two or three get contracts, so I really didn’t anticipate getting a contract.
“One of the things I really liked when I talked to Coach Byron [Storer] on the phone is I really got the impression that even if I didn’t get a contract I’d walk away a better punter. My goal in rookie minicamp was just to get my feet wet, see what the NFL is all about, see if I really do have what it takes, and I kind of just performed well and got the opportunity to be a Raider.”
Cole’s performance during rookie minicamp was enough to warrant a contract, and like any prospect with dreams of becoming a professional athlete, he couldn’t contain his excitement, but he had to keep it on the down low.
“It was wild, man,” Cole said trying not to smile too hard. “It was a crazy couple days and it’s funny because the rookie minicamp ended on Sunday and I was going to sign the contract on Monday, and they told me I was signing the contract. I just had to do my physical the next day. So, I get back to my hotel room at 12 o’clock, so I’m by myself, I’ve got all this excitement and emotion. I’m calling people from back home, I’m like, ‘guess what!’ I can’t announce anything yet, but it was a whirlwind of emotion, but so excited to be here and have this opportunity.”
Cole went from focusing on just becoming a better player to competing for the starting job during Raiders training camp. His day-by-day mentality has gotten him this far, and during the first week of practice in Napa, Calif., the 6’4” special teamer built a lot of momentum.
No disrespect to former Raiders punter Johnny Townsend, but he endured his fair share of ups and downs last season, which to be fair is expected with any rookie; however, the special teams unit needs to take a step forward this season in terms of flipping the field position.
Tuesday morning the Silver and Black decided to part ways with Townsend, waiving him and making Cole the lone punter on the roster. After one preseason performance, it appears as though the rookie has won the position battle.
Against the Los Angeles Rams Saturday, Cole punted four times, amassing a total of 172 yards and averaged 43 yards per punt, with a 49 yarder being his longest. Cole has a booming leg and was known in college for his pooches and ability to place punts within the 20-yard line consistently, which is crucial at the NFL level. Even though Townsend wasn’t perfect last season, it’s hard to find any punter that is, which Cole was sure to point out Friday.
“It’s one of the tough parts about being a punter is that some days aren’t going to be the best, some times you aren’t going to hit your best punts, so you really have to live in the moment,” he explained. “You don’t want to look in the past, you don’t want to look too far in the future. You kind of just want to stay in the moment and just focus on what can I do to hit a good ball the next time? What can I do to give my coverage team a chance to go make a play and put our defense in the best position?”
Cole knows there’s areas he can improve in, but he’s also versatile, demonstrating on Saturday his ability to kickoff. Prior to his tryout with the Raiders, Cole felt like he was a good holder, but quickly realized that wasn’t the case. The rookie took notes from Townsend — who is an exceptional holder — throughout camp, and making sure he understands precisely how second-year kicker Daniel Carlson prefers his holds. It’s all a part of the process though and Assistant head coach/special teams Coordinator Rich Bisaccia seems to be pleased with Cole’s progress.
“Well, he has a tremendous leg,” Bisaccia said. “He has a natural hang to him, kind of even on his bad ball he can kind of get away with it. He’s a high-hit guy on his contact on the ball and he’s really improved his holding as he’s come along. And he can kickoff, so it gives us a little bit of an advantage that way with having the ability to have two guys that can kickoff through preseason.”
After a strong performance in his first preseason game, Cole will try to build on his first preseason game with another impressive showing this week against the Arizona Cardinals. It’s one thing to consistently blast punts in practice, but he’s proven himself as a holder, avoided blocks, and has established himself, as of now, as the Raiders punter for the 2019 season.
“To sign some players, you have to let some players go,” Gruden said Tuesday. “Hate to see Johnny [Townsend] go. We still think he’s a really good punter. A.J. Cole deserves to be our guy at this point.”