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How the Utes put the 'foot' in football

SALT LAKE CITY — Maybe it’s Kyle Whittingham’s pep talks that send all those kicks soaring. Or something to do with the autonomy he allows his players. Where he recruits certainly plays a part.

Whatever the case, the Utes' kicking game is putting the “foot” back in football.

Tuesday in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, the Utes will have no greater weapon than in their kicking game. Strong special teams play has become a Utah calling card. When the announcers say Utah is “pinned deep in its own territory” or “out of scoring range,” the Utes scoff.

Their place-kickers and punters use constellations for target practice. As such, Utah is a special teams power. The school has had seven consensus All-Americans in its history, and four were either punters or place-kickers. The latest is Matt Gay, a former soccer player who this year booted five field goals longer than 50 yards, earning the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s best place-kicker.

The Utes' Mitch Wishnowsky won last season’s Ray Guy Award as the best punter in America — and presumably Australia, his native country. Before him there was fellow Aussie Tom Hackett, now starring afternoons on ESPN 700’s “Gunther & Hackett” show. He too won the Guy Award — twice. Both Australians have been consensus All-Americans.

Meanwhile, “Automatic” Andy Phillips transitioned from the U.S. Ski Team into a second-team All-American place-kicker.

Stories vary as to how each of them got to Utah, but the commonality is that they received the Whittingham treatment once they arrived. Which is to say he loves ’em and leaves ’em.

He loves them to death and leaves them alone.

“He realizes that we know more about our body and technique than he does,” says Hackett.

“We’ll give them a few pointers,” Whittingham says, “but their kick (technique) is predominantly set when they get here.”

The Whittingham progression began about a decade ago when he recruited Louie Sakoda from San Jose, California. Sakoda made it a point to discredit stereotypes that kickers are undersized geeks, with zero athletic ability.

“Some kickers still fit that description,” Sakoda said in 2008. “But I’ve broken that mold.”

Sakoda was 5-foot-10, 178 pounds. But he was well-built and athletic enough to respectably pull off fake field goals. Gay, also a consensus pick, is a solid 6-foot-1, 220-pound player who looks like a fullback. Hackett … not so much. The latter accepted the Guy Award in 2015 by saying “deep down I’m fat and don’t like running very far.”

He seldom needed to.

Not everyone can be Wishnowsky, who is 6-foot-2, 220 pounds and runs a 4.5 40. Phillips, a 5-10, 210-pound former downhill racer, was a Groza semifinalist.

Not a geek in the bunch.

Hackett says Whittingham’s strength, aside from recruiting the right talent, is that he “spends 10 minutes every year” in fall camp “reiterating how important special teams is.”

“So that’s pretty cool,” Hackett says. “He makes us feel pretty important.”

Whittingham’s pitch: If you want to play as a freshman, succeed on special teams. The rest will come naturally.

“There are a lot of politics at some schools, but in fall camp it was open and that’s what I liked about it,” Gay says.

Chayden Johnston was narrowly ahead at place-kicker, going into the first game of this season. But he missed on his first try, and Gay made three in the same game. The race was over.

“I’m a pretty confident dude,” Gay says.

Some teams isolate kickers, deeming them pretend football players, unworthy of full acceptance. But Hackett never had a serious problem at Utah. Everyone wanted to be his friend, thanks to his Australian accent. Then he started winning games with his punting. As Whittingham would say, he could “flip the field.”

The teasing from linemen and skill players never got off the ground.

“They did notice I got better as the year went on, and people would shut up,” Hackett says.

Both Hackett and Gay say Whittingham tells his kickers they have a chance to start if they play well, regardless of prior experience. How serious is Whittingham about recruiting punters and kickers?

“We’re serious about every position,” Whittingham says, sounding slightly indignant. “That’s no different than any other position. We just had a good run.”

You might even say it’s been a kick.