Slapshots to punting: Colin Downing excels at it all

Colin Downing punts the ball away on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

Jack Macdonald

Simply put, Colin Downing is an elite punter. But the funny thing is, punting wasn’t his first love — it was hockey. 

“First of all, football wasn’t even my first sport, it was hockey,” Downing said. “I was always going to be a hockey player.”

Growing up in the Milwaukee suburbs, Downing skated for the Milwaukee Winter Club youth teams. It’s often where some of the top skaters go from the Milwaukee area. And according to Downing, it was a sport in which he excelled. 

In fact, he excelled in it so much that in the summer, he would skate with the Milwaukee Jr. Admirals. The Jr. Admirals are one of a few elite ice hockey programs in the state of Wisconsin, fortunately for Downing, they were right in his backyard. 

When Downing was younger, football was his fall sport and hockey was his winter sport. But, at some point, one was going to have to be put on the back burner if he wanted to reach his goal of being a Division I athlete. 

“[To play Division I], that was always the dream of mine,” Downing said. 

And, to reach that goal, hockey was put to the side and football moved into the spotlight. Hockey was still there, but as Downing put it, it was just a means of conditioning in the winter. 

A big contributing reason to the decision to focus on football was the fact that his high school, Whitefish Bay, had just churned out a duo of star punters, Will and Chris Hagerup.

Chris, the elder Hagerup, graduated from Whitefish Bay seven years prior to Downing, but Will Hagerup graduated only four years before Downing. And eager not to be the forgotten punter from Whitefish Bay, Downing watched everything Will Hagerup did. 

“Will Hagerup was kind of my mentor growing up,” Downing said. “He taught me how to punt — he basically taught me a lot of the things I know today.”

And what Will Hagerup taught Downing really payed off in high school for the current Iowa State senior. Downing, a decorated high school punter, was a first-team All-State punter his senior year and averaged 43.2 yards per punt. Not to forget his first love, he also captained his high school hockey team. 

The punting path really lit up for Downing the summer of his sophomore year of high school, as he started to enroll in more punting camps, rather than hockey camps. 

His junior season, Downing attended a punting camp for the nationally renowned and former Iowa State kicker, Jamie Kohl. At that camp, Downing competed against seniors that were supposed to be much better than him, but he quickly showed his superior talents to Kohl. He won the competition and really started to feel as if punting could earn him a Division I scholarship. 

“I actually won the punting competition, so it was kind of like ‘okay I can compete with all these guys on this level,'” Downing said. “And there were kids that were seniors there, so it was pretty cool and it kind of gave me a ton of confidence. That’s a really big reason why I’m [at Iowa State].”

Now at Iowa State, Downing has etched his name into Cyclone history as he has been a starter since his very first year in Ames.  In his first college game, he booted a 56-yard punt against North Dakota State. From then on, Downing was ‘the man’. 

And seven games into his senior year, Downing is considered one of the best punters in the nation. For three seasons in a row, he has been named to the Ray Guy Watch List, an award that is annually handed out to the nations best punter. 

“But what he’s done and his ability to sustain himself — again, he’s a senior, you hope your seniors are playing their best football by the time they get to their senior year — there’s a guy that’s having an outstanding year, really just proud of him, I think it all starts with him,” coach Matt Campbell said. “That sets the tone [for the punt team].”

From a defensive standpoint, Downing and the rest of the special teams guys have been a huge asset to the Cyclones. Just two weekends ago, they harassed Kansas for a muffed punt recovery and a punt that went a whopping negative two yards. 

Just how good of a senior season is Downing having?

He has averaged 42.91 yards per punt and has booted a season-best 61-yard punt. Downing has also been credited with 15 punts inside the 20-yard line and eight punts over 50 yards. 

“As a defensive coach, there is three things that really help your defense and none of them have anything to do with defense,” defensive coordinator Jon Heacock said. “It’s field position, the special team guys, your offense taking care of the football and the turnover margin and just the time of possession.”

And when TCU comes to Ames Saturday with arguably the best punt returner in the nation, Downing is up for the task and quite honestly, is up for any task thrown his way. 

“[He’s] probably the best returner in the country. I’m a competitive guy, I love a challenge and people would want to tell me that I won’t be able to punt well this week or you know what are you going to do to prevent a big return?,” Downing said. “Well, I’m going to work my ass off all week and we’ll see what happens.”