Beating the Odds
A.J. Cole III ‘18 is loving life as a punter for the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders.
As a punter in his third season with the Las Vegas Raiders, A.J. Cole III ’18 had quite a year in 2021. He averaged 50 yards a punt to lead the NFL (his longest was 74 yards) and was named to the 2021 All-Pro Team as the league’s best punter.
But when asked for one of the highlights of the year, Cole mentions a tackle he made on a punt return by the Kansas City Chiefs. He forced a fumble that was recovered by one of his Raiders’ teammates. “It was electric,” he says.
Cole appreciates the recognition for his work, but is quick to downplay it. “It’s something to celebrate for a little bit,” he says, “but it’s not something to find my identity in.”
That approach probably served Cole well in the Pro Bowl game that pitted the stars from the National Football Conference against the stars from the American Football Conference. Cole never got a chance to punt in the game, but handled it with grace during a sideline interview during the broadcast. He joked that his best stats from the day were the two hot dogs he ate at halftime and pointed to the grass stains on his knees (from holding the ball for extra points) as proof that he had been in the game.
“It was hilarious,” Cole said of his Pro Bowl experience. “I was just cruising on the sidelines. I was very uninvolved in the game, but it was not boring.”
Cole is careful not to let his recent success go to his head. NFL teams typically bring in one or two punters each year to try out for the job, meaning that veterans like Cole always have someone gunning for them. “It’s tough,” he says. “You become friends with those people, but it’s two dogs and one bone.”
A late bloomer as a punter, Cole didn’t take on the role full time until his senior year in high school. He says NC State offered him a scholarship based on his performance at a Wolfpack football camp the summer before his last year of high school. “I didn’t feel like I deserved to have the NFL as a goal,” Cole says.
But midway through his time at NC State, Cole started to think the impossible might be possible. “It almost took some courage to say it out loud, that I wanted to play in the NFL,” he says. “But I changed my mental approach.”
The odds were still stacked against Cole. He wasn’t drafted (not that unusual for a punter) and had to rely on a three-day tryout with the Raiders just to get invited to the team’s pre-season camp for a full tryout. He says there is a vast difference between punting in college and doing it professionally.
“In the NFL, the level of competition is so much higher and everything happens so much faster,” he says. “There’s such an emphasis on distance and hang time. These guys are such athletic specimens that you can’t give them an inch of space. I never want to be a guy that gives up a game-breaking play.”
Cole loves living in Las Vegas, which he says has a nice, normal pace outside of the neon lights and noise of the infamous Vegas Strip. But he also enjoys the chance to visit the Strip to see a show or get a great meal at a restaurant. “You can just do whatever you want here,” he says. “You never run out of activities.”
Cole earned a degree in industrial engineering at NC State, but hopes he never needs to use it. “I’d like to play until the wheels come off,” he says. “I’ve just got to stay healthy, keep growing and don’t get complacent. I’d like to play for a really long time.”