Taking advantage of elevation has always been a calling card of what Northern Arizona football wants to do on the field.
What better spot to do that than in the punting game.
Northern Arizona punter DJ Arnson walked on to the Lumberjacks roster as a total unknown coming out of Cochise Community College in Nogales -- which doesn’t support junior college athletics. The coaching staff at the time didn’t really know what Arnson was even trying out for.
“Yeah I came in; coach had no idea I was showing up and I just kinda got here and I won the starting spot and a year later got on full scholarship, so it's been nothing but a blessing,” Arnson said.
After a solid first season with Northern Arizona in 2017, Arnson exploded last year. He finished the season third in the FCS in punting average at 44.6 yards per boot -- more than three yards better than his 2017 average -- including 16 punts that went more than 50 yards.
Arnson was an all-state punter during his time at Basha High School, averaging 38.5 yards per punt during his senior year.
Punting was just what he did, he said. He tried to convince coaches to play him somewhere else -- but that never really worked out.
After spending some time in community college, Arnson said he felt the itch to try and get back into football.
“I felt like I still had an opportunity and an ability to play football, so I came up to NAU and here I am,” Arnson said. “It was always a dream, but I kinda noticed it once I got older and graduated. I was hitting a ball outside of a park and thought, ‘You know, I think I still kind of got it,’ so I decided to see where it could take me. … I’ve been stuck at 5-11 my whole life, so punter kinda whittled that down.”
But it wasn’t just power that he showed off; he landed 15 punts inside the 20-yard line showing his versatility in flipping the field.
In the Lumberjacks' upset win over then No. 25 North Dakota at home to cap off the 2018 season, Arnson pinned three punts inside the 20 to keep the Fighting Hawks in poor field position.
He showed enough last season to make the inaugural FCS punter of the year preseason watchlist heading into this season.
So far he has impressed first-year Lumberjacks special teams coordinator Aaron Price -- a former punter himself -- despite Arnson's small stature.
“Well, for a vertically challenged guy he’s got a really strong leg for a punter,” Price said.
Price noted the advantages of punting in Flagstaff’s elevation and that Arnson gets the chance to punt indoors for half of the season. Back in the day, Price said, he used the Walkup Skydome to film his high school punting tapes while his dad Mike Price was coaching up at Weber State.
“Even in 1989, when I was coming out of high school my father was coaching at Weber State we came down here, I filmed my highlight film to send out to colleges in the dome here, cause it’s such a good kicking element,” Price said. “It’s been a while, that’s 30 years ago. But DJ is a heck of a punter.”
The numbers behind the elevation advantage show just a slight change in average yards per punt. At home, Arnson booted an average of 44-yards per punt and on the road he went for 42-yards per punt.
His longest punt of the year, however, came on the round at an outdoor stadium at Missouri State -- which has an elevation of about 1,300 feet.
So whether the elevation change plays a critical role in Arnson's punting or not, he has more than proved his value to the Northern Arizona football team.