Just as the Colorado football team was wrapping up the 2020 season, punter Josh Watts started to feel a bit more comfortable in his role.
New to the game last season, Watts said he felt more confident by the time the Buffaloes played in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29. Although the season ended at that point, the junior has carried that momentum into the spring.
“Towards the back end of the year I started to feel more comfortable, but I feel like I definitely still haven’t punted my best in games and I’m looking to do it this year for sure,” said Watts, who has two more seasons of eligibility at CU.
A native of Hobart, Tasmania, an island state of Australia, Watts, 25, played in the Australian Football League before joining the Buffs in December of 2019. He learned to punt at ProKick Australia Academy – which has sent numerous punters and kickers to United States colleges – but had never played American football until last year.
“I had only seen a couple of games,” he said. “To be honest, I wasn’t that nervous (last season) because I didn’t know what to expect.”
Watts did need some time to adjust, however.
Arriving in Boulder about three months before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports for a while, Watts hasn’t been home since. During his first year in Boulder, however, he leaned on former CU kicker James Stefanou, an Australian native who played four years with the Buffs before retiring from the game last November.
Stefanou and his wife often had Watts and his girlfriend over for dinner, as they bonded through their experiences.
“Having James here was huge for me, obviously,” Watts said. “Just someone that I could always lean on, I guess, who has gone through the exact same thing – traveling halfway across the world to come to play football over here.”
Watts has also been helped by former CU punter Tom Rouen, a 1989 first-team All-American who played 16 years in the NFL and won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos.
“Tom has worked with (former CU punter) Alex Kinney and also James Stefanou in the past,” Watts said. “He’s sort of always been around, always been there to talk to the specialists at Colorado.”
The primary focus, Watts said, has been fine-tuning the details of the craft of punting.
“The difference between a good ball and a bad ball is so minor a lot of the time, it’s just ironing out the little things,” Watts said. “That’s all it is at the moment; just getting those little things right, getting used to punting with different types of winds. He played 15 years in the NFL, so it’s just awesome I get the opportunity to work with him.”
Watts handled all off of CU’s punting duties during the shortened 2020 season, averaging 41.3 yards on 35 kicks. He had a long of 60 yards and placed 11 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
In the first three games, Watts averaged 38.5 yards. He boosted that average to 44.0 in the last three and had his three longest punts – 51, 53 and 60 yards – in that stretch.
“I feel like I’m a lot more comfortable now, especially punting with a rush and off a snap and things that I just didn’t get used to in Australia before I came here,” he said.
“It was tough (early in the season) because I was put in some tough situations; those first couple of games where I was backed up or I was punting with a couple minutes left. … It was sort of a baptism of fire. Especially in the Stanford game, I had a couple punts late where they had 10 rushers and they didn’t even have a returner, where I just had to catch it and kick it. Going through those things I think helped me.”
Although Stefanou has retired from the game and moved back to Australia with his family, Watts is one of several dozen Australian punters and kickers in the U.S., including a few in the NFL. That group continues to help each other.
“We speak all the time, actually,” Watts said. “We all keep in touch and we all lean on each other, and then just talk about how we go about things. There’s definitely a good support network there between all of us.”