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Utes’ Andy Phillips automatic in his drive to succeed and still getting his kicks

SHARE Utes’ Andy Phillips automatic in his drive to succeed and still getting his kicks
He basically rewrote the record book for kicking here. Not only that but he’s leaving here with a master’s degree in hand. – Kyle Whittingham

SALT LAKE CITY — Andy Phillips isn’t exactly sure what happened. He doesn’t know if he got pushed from behind or if something else went wrong.

Whatever the case, the Utah kicker was involved in a “freak accident” just 12 days before the Utes’ season-opener against Southern Utah. The senior was left with two broken toes on his kicking foot and what evolved into a big bruise on the inner thigh of his other leg.

It happened at the end of fall camp, in a bicycle relay race on the turf at Rice-Eccles Stadium — part of an annual team tradition with children from the Ute Indian Tribe. The kids received the new bikes, which were put together by the players, after the friendly competition that is part of the team’s camp Olympics.

Although Phillips wasn’t scheduled to participate in the event, he opted to do so when an opportunity arose.

“No one on my team was too keen on hopping on the bike,” he recalled. “Being the enthusiastic guy I am, I’m, like ‘Hey, I’ll jump on and ride this.’ I’ve got a couple of kids.”

Phillips then joined in the fun. He got on to the small bicycle and began going as fast as he could,

“We were right there in the lead,” said Phillips, who explained that the handlebars suddenly went sideways. “I was flipping over the bike and my fourth and my fifth toes got caught in the pedals and just snapped straight in half.”

Although he could still kind of walk, the incident left him in a little bit of shock.

“I knew something was up when I had taken my cleats off. I’ve broken plenty of bones in my body to know what that feels like,” said Phillips, who was a U.S. Ski Team racer from 2007-11. “I would wiggle my toes and I could see my two right toes going against the grain and wiggling offset.”

As per his nature, Phillips explained that he didn’t freak out. He managed to stay calm and collected while acknowledging the need to get the situation fixed.

Phillips was able to get his injured foot back into the cleat, hobble off the field and not bring too much attention his way.

It wasn’t easy.

Besides the injury to his toes, he also had the end of a handlebar indent his plant leg near his groin and quad muscles. Although it didn’t break the skin, it wound up creating a large bruise.

“That was actually more pain and concern to me than my toes were,” Phillips said.

News of the injuries, obviously, didn’t sit well with head coach Kyle Whittingham.

“Well, I wasn’t that thrilled. I can tell you that,” he said. “But between the trainers' assessment and how he was feeling, it was apparent he was going to be able to kick.”

Phillips learned to walk on the inside of his foot and used an orthotic pad on his sole to put pressure elsewhere during his recovery. Even so, it affected the way he did almost everything.

“Up until I was able to really walk and run on it, I tried to just shove (my foot) in my shoe and hide it,” Phillips said. “It was unfortunate for sure, really bad timing.”

Phillips had mixed success in Utah’s 24-0 season-opening win over Southern Utah on Sept. 1. He made a 26-yard field goal but missed a 36-yard attempt. Hayes Hicken stepped in and did all the kickoffs for Phillips.

“I tried not to make it too obvious. After I’d kick it would be pretty painful for about two minutes or so,” said Phillips, who admits getting a little help from Utah snapper Chase Dominguez when leaving the field. “Chase would throw his arm around me as we were walking off and let me grab onto him. He’s way taller than me so he let me grab onto his jersey and I could kind of run off and take a little more pressure off of that foot.”

That went on for quite a few games. Phillips didn’t really start running on his bad foot until after the California game on Oct. 1. He opted not to use a block or anything to numb the pain because it might affect the balance of his foot and his feel for the ball upon contact.

Phillips said it was like walking around with a knife stuck in your toes. The pain was constant.

There were also concerns about whether kicking with the broken toes would hinder the healing process — perhaps turning a six-week recovery into 12 weeks or longer.

“It was interesting and fun improvising,” Phillips said. “But frustrating at the same time.”

In the midst of it all, Phillips kicked off a few times against USC on Oct. 23. He couldn’t run and hadn’t done any kickoffs in four weeks.

Phillips had a lot on his mind throughout the season. As a senior, he wondered about his image and how NFL scouts and teams were viewing him. Were there questions about why his kickoffs weren’t going out of the end zone and/or why he wasn’t kicking them?

As time passed, Phillips finally felt good enough to resume kicking off again. His toes were healing. In Utah’s win over Arizona on Oct. 8, he kicked off five times.

Then came more adversity.

Phillips tore a meniscus in his left knee while trying to make a tackle. He reaggravated it in warm-ups prior to the Arizona State game on Nov. 10 and couldn’t run on it over the last three games. It was surgically repaired after the season-ending loss at Colorado.

All said, Phillips was only able to move adequately for a couple of weeks during the season. His ability to handle kickoffs was pretty much impacted all year long. He kicked off just 10 — 47 fewer than Hicken and just seven more than punter Mitch Wishnowsky.

“I just tried to give it everything I have,” said Phillips, who expects to be as healthy as he’s been all season long when Utah faces Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl on Dec. 28.

Despite the injuries, Phillips managed to play in every game this season (and throughout his collegiate career). He was named second-team All-Pac-12 and a Lou Groza Award semifinalist for the fourth time after making 17 of 21 kicks from the field and all 41 of his PATs.

“It would have been much more problematic if he would have been out of commission for a period of time,” Whittingham said. “But he was able to gut it up and kick the whole season.”

While noting that Phillips had “a couple of really freakish things that happened to him,” Whittingham praised the kicker for being a tough kid. He added that the injuries did not impact Phillips when it came to making field goals and PATs.

“He didn’t really miss a beat,” Whittingham said. “He mustered through it and ended up having a very good year.”

Phillips is Utah’s career record-holder for points scored (403) and field goals made (77). He’s only missed one extra point in four years, making the other 173 he attempted.

“He basically rewrote the record book for kicking here. Not only that but he’s leaving here with a master’s degree in hand,” Whittingham said. “So that’s very impressive to be able to accomplish what he did on the field and in the classroom.”

Phillips has earned three degrees at Utah. In addition to a Master’s in Information Systems, he earned a pair of bachelor’s degrees (information systems and marketing).

The 27-year-old, who had never played a down of football until joining the Utes as a walk-on in 2012, has also served an LDS Church mission to Norway. Phillips and his wife, Megan, have two children — sons Max and Gus.

Andy Phillips and his wife, Megan, play with their son, Maximus, 1, at their home in Draper on July 19, 2016.

“I’ve always had a lot on my plate,” said Phillips, who has consistently taken 18 credits of school per semester in addition to being a husband and father, playing football and holding a part-time job.

Oh yeah, Phillips also served as a team captain for two seasons (2014, 2015).

“He’s determined. He’s a fierce competitor and whatever he puts his mind to he’s going to accomplish and that’s the bottom line,” Whittingham said. “We’re going to miss him. He’s been a pleasure to be able to coach the last few years. He’s been a real leader for us, too.”

Whittingham added that the latter is rare for a specialist.

“They’re not usually put in a leadership position,” he said. “But he’s one of the exceptions to that rule.”

Former teammate Tom Hackett, a two-time Ray Guy Award winner, considers Phillips a mentor of sorts.

“He has knowledge throughout his professional skiing that I was able to use,” said Hackett, who developed a strong friendship with Phillips when both players entered the college football world together.

Utah placeholder Tom Hackett (33) and kicker Andy Phillips (39) bump helmets after converting a successful field goal against the Cal Bears in 2015

“That’s where it all started. We were both unfamiliar with football and how collegiate programs operate — even how the game operates,” Hackett said.

For three years, the punter was the holder for Phillips.

“He’s focused and driven,” Hackett said. “I like to think I’m similar.”

Things have worked out, he continued. The two players get along well and share common interests that have created a lasting bond.

However, there are some personality differences.

“He’s a little more uptight. He overthinks things occasionally and I don’t necessarily do that or think I do,” Hackett said. “So I was able to kind of mentor him in a way that calmed him down and just allowed him to focus on what’s important, important right here and now.”

Hackett’s input is something Phillips values. He called his friend when a culmination of things piled up and got frustrating. Phillips credits Hackett for putting things in perspective when it came to issues like the broken toes and not being elected as a captain for a third consecutive year.

The long talk, as well as discussions Phillips had with his wife and his father, Greg, helped him along the way.

“I always believe that there’s a silver lining,” Phillips said. “There’s a positive to take out of adversity that hits us and I think that’s something that the Utah football program has conditioned us to find — what positive comes out of it.”

Phillips has faced a variety of challenges — good and bad — this season. In addition to the injuries, he also worked around the birth of his second child, adjusted to a new holder (Wishnowsky in place of the graduated Hackett), and dealt with not being named a team captain.

Among the positives, Phillips noted, is being able to focus more on his foot position and contact this season. He said that has been huge for him in building his technique. As such, Phillips admits to being super meticulous when it comes to his holds.

“There’s more pressure holding for Andy, because he’s so bloody particular, than going out to punt,” Wishnowsky joked. “

Phillips explained that Hackett and Wishnowsky have different styles when it comes to holding. He said Hackett puts the ball a little bit more straight and it leads to a nice little baby drop in his kicks. Phillips added that Wishnowsky’s holds have a little more lean and produce more of a “beautiful” end-to-end kick.

The latter, he said, has taught him to kick a better ball.

“I don’t know if its just old age, but the poor boy is falling apart,” said Wishnowsky, who turned serious when noting that making 80 percent of your kicks is a “ripping” season. “If that’s a down year, you wouldn’t want to see (Phillips) when he’s healthy.”

Phillips has vowed to execute his position whenever his name is called — despite the injuries and despite hardly being able to really walk the first couple weeks of the season. He’s dedicated to the team.

“If I can still put them through (the uprights) and do it better than anyone else, I don’t really care about my pain levels,” Phillips said. “That’s something that is just temporary and I can handle it.”

Wishnowsky calls Phillips “a beautiful man" and added that Phillips took him under his wing upon his arrival. He also noted Phillips had earned his “Automatic” nickname on the field.

Utah kicker Andy Phillips addresses the crowds as Utah fans congregate on Fremont Street for a pep rally Friday, Dec. 19, 2014, in Las Vegas.

“He’s just a good bloke and a real asset to any football team,” Wishnowsky said.

Does “any” include the National Football League? Whittingham believes so.

“It’s so important as a specialist to get in the right situation because there’s not a whole lot of opportunity in the NFL because the kickers there seem to last for a lot of years,” he said. “But it’s just a matter of when he gets his opportunity, when he gets to camp, that he’s performing right there. At that point, what you’ve done in your college career is kind of out the window. It’s what you do in that camp competition.”

Whittingham added that Phillips has a mentally tough approach to the game and should do well in that kind of situation.

“I just hope somebody gives him that opportunity,” he said.

Phillips, who thought about making the move a year ago because of his age and other factors, believes “he’s fully capable of being an NFL kicker.” He cited his statistical consistency and overall maturity as proof.

Same goes for his challenging senior season, where Phillips wasn't always able to kick off. He notes that going out and doing what he can for the team has allowed him to persevere and not let injuries set him back.

Phillips is hopeful for an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine.

“I just want an opportunity because I love the competition,” Phillips said. “I feel like on any given day I’m the best guy out there and I just want the opportunity to prove that.”