GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As Johnny Townsend tells it, he sort of fell into punting unintentionally.
But that’s probably a familiar story for practitioners of such a specialized craft.
“It was kind of a weird thing how I got into it. I was playing freshman football and the coach lined up about four guys to pick the punter, who could kick it the furthest,” he recalled Tuesday. “A couple of guys hit some balls and I just somehow hit one really well, like a nice spiral and from then on I just kept working on it and getting better and better.”
Still, though, he didn’t know at the time that would become his path in football, that he’d not only wind up punting at Florida — his “dream school,” as he put it — but that he’d be among the national leaders at his position and a candidate for top honors.
That’s where Townsend has positioned himself through five games of his redshirt junior season with the Gators, ranking second in the country by averaging 50.2 yards per punt.
Back at Boone High School in Orlando, though, he was hardly a specialist.
Townsend said he played quarterback his first two high school seasons before focusing on free safety and linebacker his final years. Punting was an extra asset.
He even had some preferred walk-on interest from Ivy League schools such as Dartmouth and Harvard, he said. Enough interest that he was legitimately considering going that route.
“I had got recruited to play some safety at some Ivy League schools. I was contacted a lot by some of them, but nothing was really as big as the schools that we’re contacting me to punt,” he said. “Going into my senior year I went to some college camps, earned some scholarships to some big-time schools and that’s how I knew that’s what I wanted to do. …
“My dream school was to come here and I was just trying to create an opportunity for myself to make that happen. So, if it was to punt, I would do it.”
After averaging 42 yards per punt as a freshman in 2013 before redshirting in 2014 behind Kyle Christy (a previous Ray Guy Award finalist two years earlier, who reclaimed the job) and then averaging 45.4 yards per punt last year, Townsend has been at his best this fall.
His 50.2 yards per punt is second only to Utah’s Mitch Wishnowsky (50.5) and a couple yards ahead of the next punters on that list.
And Townsend readily acknowledges that he knows exactly where he ranks.
“I check it pretty frequently. Yeah, I’m a real competitive guy so I love to look at the standings and also see where a lot of my friends are on the rankings as well, so I check it pretty frequently,” he said. “It’s a huge honor. I know we put a lot of hard work in the offseason so we’re striving to be the best every day, so hopefully that will pay off at the end of the year.”
Townsend was named the Ray Guy Award Punter of the Week after averaging 51.9 yards on 7 punts at Vanderbilt two weeks ago. That included a career-long 62-yard punt and five inside the 20-yard line.
The honor he’d really like is the end-of-season Ray Guy Award, which goes to the nation’s top punter.
“I’ve been working real hard and that’s been my goal since I began playing football (at Florida), was to win the Ray Guy Award and be the best in the SEC,” Townsend said. “That’s what I’m striving to do each and every day, so hopefully in the end it works out.”
He certainly has a legitimate chance.
“I’ve been blessed that I’ve had a couple other really good punters in my coaching career that have a got a chance to go play in the NFL, but Johnny might be the best of all of them that I’ve had,” Florida special teams coordinator Greg Nord said. “Any time you’re punting the ball (with a) 50-yard average, my gosh, that’s as good as there is in the country.”