With any rookie, there’s always questions about how they’ll handle the bumps in the road as they progress through their first NFL season.
Depending on the position, each rookie experiences unique hurdles they’ll be forced to overcome with experience and repetition. For Raiders fifth-round pick Johnny Townsend, he’s already been thrown through the ringer with the amount of changes he’s seen on the special teams unit. The former Florida Gator is the Raiders punter of the future, and through his first six months with the team he’s been asked to hold for three different kickers – one of them being left footed – and now he’s set to work with his second long snapper.
Monday night against the Los Angeles Rams, on the first punt of the game, long snapper Andrew DePaola suffered a knee injury that eventually resulted in him being placed on the Reserve/Injured list. Ruled out not long after being assisted off the field by the strength and conditioning staff, tight end Lee Smith became the team’s emergency long snapper. In the time he was asked to fill in, the special teams unit converted two field goals, and Townsend was able to punt a couple of sky-high balls.
Losing your long snapper on the first punt of 2018 isn’t ideal by any means, but through the coaching of Assistant Head Coach/Special Teams Coordinator Rich Bisaccia Townsend was prepared.
“We weren’t expecting that to happen, and we never are, but we just try to prepare for situations like that the best we can,” Townsend said Wednesday. “I knew Lee [Smith] was a good snapper and he was the backup guy, he did a nice job of stepping in there and doing the job.”
Prior to the game, Townsend hadn’t received much work with the tight end snapping.
“I think one?” he said when asked how many snaps the two had before DePaola’s injury. “I think that last week in practice he snapped me a couple just after practice, but that was it.”
Smith has received praise for his efforts Monday night, from both Head Coach Jon Gruden and Townsend, but the unfortunate situation also showed just how adaptable No. 5 is. Through Organized Team Activities and training camp, Townsend – as I mentioned earlier – was tasked with holding kicks for both a left and right footed kicker. Consistency is key for any rookie trying to transition to the NFL, and the switches being made around him are enough to prevent anyone from getting comfortable; however, Townsend has remained unfazed.
Placekicker Mike Nugent joined the Silver and Black late in camp, and at this juncture hasn’t received as many reps with Townsend as fellow kicker Eddy Piñeiro – who is currently on the Reserve/Injured List – but he’s been impressed with the way he’s conducted himself during their time together.
"I didn't tell him during the game, but I was going to tell him, 'You've been here for long enough to realize nothing ever goes according to plan,'” Nugent said. “Things are going to happen and you have to be able to perform, and if you can't the team is going to go out there and capitalize on certain mistakes. I think he's done a great job with that, and I think it's a credit to how hard he works and his character. He takes a lot of pride in what he does whether it's punting or holding, but as a kicker I think you really appreciate guys like that."
The way he’s handled the adversity in the early going has impressed his head coach.
“It says a lot about Townsend,” Gruden said Tuesday. “I thought he handled the adversity pretty good for a rookie player on Monday Night Football. I thought he did some good things.”
Wednesday, Gruden doubled down on his punter, offering up more high praise.
“I thought it was good,” he said regarding Townsend’s performance Monday night. “I thought it was good. We judge it by a lot of different things. He’s a good holder and it starts right there. He put the ball down great for our place kicker. He doesn’t give up a lot of returns. He’s not careless with his accuracy. He handled some difficult snaps against a pretty good rush in his first game, so I was proud of him.”
The Orlando native has showed no signs of trepidation, and is doing everything the coaching staff asks of him. Townsend has stated Bisaccia and the coaching staff want him to focus on kicking high punts, and becoming more of a directional punter, even though he’s capable of booming it down the field.
No matter the task, it seems like nothing is too big of an obstacle for Townsend at this point of his career.
Sunday he’ll get the chance to punt at Mile High Stadium, as the Raiders take on the division rival Broncos, and he’s looking forward to playing at a higher altitude. Personally I can’t wait to see how high Johnny “Moonshot” can sail a football.