You knew the bottom of this list would be rife with special teamers, but did you know that we here at Hustle Belt believe Colter Johnson, the punting sensation from UMass, is the 58th best returning player in the MAC? Of course you didn't, because as soon as our list was finalized, we locked it up in our super-secret desert vault that only the NSA knows about.
Johnson is the first Minuteman to appear on our countdown, and is arguably one of the most valuable weapons his undersized and inexperienced team has. Johnson had a hell of a year in 2012 as one of the lone bright spots (if you can call great punting a "bright spot") on a squad that finished 1-11, punting 66 times for an average of almost 44 yards per punt, and capped it all off with a Third Team All-MAC selection.
Originally a soccer player from Warren, Pennsylvania, Johnson was approached by his high school's football coach his freshman year. They needed a kicker, and allowed Johnson the opportunity to participate in both sports, practicing with the football team whenever he wasn't playing soccer. After his freshman season spent on kickoff and extra points, Johnson made the wise choice to focus on football full-time.
An impressive high school career led him to Alfred State, a junior college in New York. Johnson's talent in his first two years at Alfred, the first of which saw him named a JUCO All-American, caught the eyes of UMass scouts, and he transferred to Amherst before his junior season.
Which brings us to 2012, Johnson's first with UMass. As the team inched closer and closer to a winless record, Johnson remained a consistently reliable force on the special teams. And as you may know, UMass was finding themselves in a lot of 4th down situations, so this consistency was crucial. His value was apparent to those following the team, but it was in UMass' game against Akron where it all came to a head.
Johnson booted six punts in that game, four of which were downed inside the Akron 10-yard line. Two of his punts in the second half were downed at the Akron 1, giving the UMass defense incredible field position. Johnson's efforts in that game were vital to UMass's first win as a member of the MAC (I'll never hate writing that). On top of all that goodness, Colter Johnson's name will live on as the first in UMass history to win a conference player of the week award as a member of the FBS.
The 2013 season will be Johnson's last at UMass. I would be surprised if any other name than his is at the top of the conference leaderboard for punting at the end of the year, as I expect him to continue to improve his game and work hard at reaching the pros. He certainly has the trust of his coach, Charley Molnar, who calls Johnson "one of the best in the country," and "as good as it gets." That being said, I really hope we don't see him on the field another 66 times this season.