I’m going to go in just like last season and enjoy my time. Punting is a hobby for me, something I do in my spare time all through the offseason because it’s just what I love to do. – Utah punter Tom Hackett
The shrimp-on-the-barbie questions have subsided for Australian Tom Hackett, replaced by inquiries about his NFL prospects. Nowadays he gets asked about his hang time more than his accent.
Otherwise, it’s still Tom Hackett, the Utes’ laid-back punter. He can still hit the upright on a 35-yard trick shot. And he continues to fire off funny, offhand remarks, ranging from the hubbub surrounding him to the intricacies of American fandom. Asked if he has figured out which American teams — Michigan, for example — are a big deal he says: “Kinda.”
He lets that linger in the air like a deep punt, before adding, “I got a general idea. But I don’t really look at who’s big and who’s not, because is Utah considered a big team? Maybe for some, maybe not for others. Last year we got Kaelin Clay. If I’m (a person) kicking the ball to Kaelin, whether we’re a big team or not, I’m scared, right?
“So I guess it doesn’t matter whether you’re big or not. All I really care about is if we get coverage under the punt.”
This is Hackett in 2015: Still the media’s favorite go-to guy. Four years ago, he arrived as a curiosity, an Australian rules football player who could place punts as precisely as setting a table. Last year, as a junior, he was presented the Ray Guy Award as the best college punter in America. His kicks won games by pinning opponents deep in their own territory. Yet in typical honesty, he admits his role isn’t entirely about one-liners and a Foster’s.
“Coming into last year, I had one (strong) year under my belt and did OK, but I knew I had more in me," he says. "I felt last year that punting became more of a job for me than a hobby. I don’t know ... I knew I was in the running for an award or two, but going into this year I’ve got nothing to lose.”
Then he’s back to devil-may-care Tom Hackett.
“I’m just going to try to do what I do.”
What he does is impressive. Last year he set a school record for punt yards in a season (3,736). He specializes in punts that coach Kyle Whittingham calls “flipping the field.” Hackett is particularly effective because of Utah’s pressure defense that makes long drives difficult.
He placed six punts inside the 5-yard line in 2014, and is second all-time in school punt yards (44.24), behind only All-America Marv Bateman.
Hackett’s success is part of a subculture of Aussie rules kickers who have similar accuracy and distance, such as Jordan Berry of the Pittsburgh Steelers via Eastern Kentucky; Sam Irwin-Hill, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Colts; Cameron Johnston at Ohio State; and Jamie Keehn at Louisiana State. USA Today estimated last year there are about two-dozen Australian kickers playing in America, ranging from junior college to the FBS national champion Buckeyes.
Hackett modestly claims he is among “thousands” of Australians who can do what he does. But it’s doubtful any are more carefree and open. Despite added expectations this season, he says he’s not worried about pressure.
“I’m going to go in just like last season and enjoy my time,” he says. “Punting is a hobby for me, something I do in my spare time all through the offseason because it’s just what I love to do.”
So look for more “Hackettball” at Rice-Eccles, where punts quietly nest inside the 10. Last year at Stanford, he nailed four punts inside the 10 and two inside the five, giving Utah the edge it needed to win. But it’s not placement alone. He kicked a 70-yarder against Colorado.
In spite of being a consensus All-America, Hackett says he’s still not a big deal Down Under, where the third form of football thrives: Australian rules.
“I can walk around there and do my deal,” he says with a wry smile. “Walk around with a beer and nobody judges me.”
The judging in Utah actually has little to do with alcohol and everything to do with kicking. In that area, everyone’s having a g’day.
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