NAPA, Calif. — The message was clear to A.J. Cole on the final day of May’s Raiders rookie minicamp.
Punt well and get rewarded with a contract. Perform poorly and catch a ride to the airport for a flight back to Atlanta.
Cole never had to worry about deciding which middle seat to try to squeeze into. He signed with the Raiders the next day and finds himself locked in a training camp competition with incumbent 2018 fifth-round pick Johnny Townsend for the starting job.
Now Cole’s focus is on performing unseating Townsend, who finished in the bottom five of the league among punters during his rookie season with a 42.4-yard average.
“There were a lot of ups and downs, obviously, but it was a great year to learn from,” Townsend said Friday. “Learning how to handle different situations and learning how to bounce back from adversity is huge when it comes to being a great player and a great team. We’ll just use all that stuff as learning experiences.”
He’ll have to hold off a strong challenge from Cole to show that improvement, though he says he’s fine having to prove himself in order to keep his job.
“I think competition brings out the best in everybody,” he said. “When I first showed up to the University of Florida, I had to compete. And when I came here I knew I had to compete.
“You’re never disappointed in that. It’s just a good opportunity to get better and push yourself to be the best you can be.”
Cole, an North Carolina State alum who also could also kick off, has showcased a powerful leg throughout camp. Meanwhile, Townsend mixed in a couple shanks before hanging a beauty that was caught on the fly and downed inside the 3-yard line on his final kick Friday.
There’s more to the position than punting, however.
Townsend, who rushed for 42 yards on a fake punt last season against the Chargers, is a skilled holder who was part of the most accurate field goal unit in franchise history last season.
Assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia, who said Townsend had a good offseason, said holding will be a factor in who wins the job.
“Johnny’s a tremendous holder and a tremendous athlete with great hand-eye coordination,” he said. “A.J. has really played well and he’s improving in that area.”
Townsend believes his skills in that area were developed through his first love as a baseball catcher. He also has known place kicker Daniel Carlson since high school.
“Obviously, it makes the kicker very comfortable knowing he has a guy he knows will get the ball down there each and every time that he can rely on,” Townsend said. “So if the kicker is comfortable with whoever is holding, sure it gives him a hand up (to win the job).”
Cole, who is rooming with Carlson at training camp, held in college and believed he was proficient in the skill until he got to the NFL.
“I quickly realized there were a lot of flaws in what I was doing, just a lot of moving around” he said. “Sometimes in college you’re kind of jumping up and moving around. I just want to catch the ball and put it down with no extra movement, just be as quiet with my body as I can be.
“Johnny’s an unbelievable holder so I’ve been able to watch one of the best in the business and what he does and what allows him to be so proficient at that position.”
Both players insist they are learning from one another and have maintained a close relationship throughout the competition.
“Everyone’s out here competing trying to be the best they can be, but it doesn’t take away from the fact we’re all teammates,” Townsend said. “Off the field, everyone has great camaraderie. We all eat meals together and hang out together. But when we hit the field, it’s go time and we both push each other to be the best we can be.”
Added Cole: “We talk about the punts and analyze everything we’re doing on film, but I don’t look at it like I’m up one or he’s up one. I just don’t think that’s a healthy way to live my life.”
They won’t be teammates for long as only one will break camp as the team’s punter and the other will be looking for a job.
It also is possible the Raiders could look outside to fill the position, though Bisaccia hopes either Townsend of Cole will win the job in Napa.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t have the answer to that,” he said. “I’m hoping it’s one of these two guys. I feel like we have a good competition going right now.”