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Close battle to be Utah's starting placekicker down to a freshman and a senior

Kickers Chayden Johnston and Matt Gay warm up ahead of kicking drills during practice on Aug. 10, 2017.
Kickers Chayden Johnston and Matt Gay warm up ahead of kicking drills during practice on Aug. 10, 2017.
Josh Furlong, KSL

SALT LAKE CITY — With the graduation of four-year starter and all-Pac-12 performer Andy Phillips, the placekicker position is one of the biggest question marks for the Utah football team heading into this season.

Two placekickers, Chayden Johnston and Matt Gay, are battling for the spot after last year’s backup, Hayes Hicken, was overtaken during fall camp. According to coach Kyle Whittingham, the battle may go right down to the last minute.

“Chayden and Matt are battling it out and it may come right down to a couple of days before the (first) game before we know which one going to kick,” Whittingham said.

Johnston was an all-state kicker at Bingham High and went on an LDS mission to Minnesota right out of high school. As a senior he made 16 of 22 field-goal attempts and 65 of 66 PATs. For his career, he was 23 of 34 on field goals and 141 of 147 on PATs.

Although he rarely had a chance to practice on his mission, Johnston said when he returned in May, he had lost few of his skills.

“Right when I got back I felt like right before I left,” he said. “Now I feel even better. It didn’t take much time at all.”

At 6-foot, 160 pounds, Johnston looks like he could be blown over by a small gust of wind. However, he says it’s not about size but leg speed.

“It’s all in the leg speed,” he said. “I started in the backyard with a couple of soccer nets when I was four years old and every single day it was hours and hours kicking the ball. I have a pretty good leg and also have good trajectory and can kick it pretty high. Those are my strengths.”

Gay has little football experience, having kicked for just one year at Orem High School before moving on to play soccer at Utah Valley for two years and going on an LDS mission to Texas. So how did he progress to his present position as a finalist for the starting placekicking spot?

“Basically I knew a guy who knew a guy and kind of lucked out and got a little tryout. Then I came up and did well and they invited me to a camp and I did well again and they decided to bring me on as a walk-on two months ago.”

The 23-year-old Gay, who is a senior in eligibility, but hopes to get a year back from the NCAA, acknowledges it’s been a challenge converting from soccer to football.

“It’s a different technique and mentality,” he said. “Soccer is more fluid, but as a field goal kicker you’re more precise on how you kick it every single time. My leg’s got good endurance, it’s just changing a little technique and getting back into kicking a football instead of a soccer ball. I feel like I’m pretty accurate and consistent.”

Whittingham said the process of selecting a kicker is serious, with every kick during camp charted and analyzed. He specified four factors that are significant in choosing a placekicker — accuracy, timing, trajectory and clutch-kicking.

“Accuracy obviously is critical; get it off on time — you’ve got to be under certain time restraints or it’s going to get blocked; trajectory — it doesn’t matter if you make every kick, if they’re line drives they’ll get blocked; and clutch kicks — you get (the kickers) in front of the team in certain situations and scenarios are weighted more heavily than others.”

Kickers have a lot of pressure on their shoulders and can either be the goat or the hero, depending on whether they can put the ball through the uprights. But Johnston says he relishes those pressure situations.

“I like those kicks a lot more,” he said. “I feel like when there’s pressure, it’s easier to make them honestly. The kicks I missed in high school were usually the ones when we were up by 30 or 40 points.”

Length is not a problem for Johnston, who kicked a 52-yard field goal in high school and says he feels comfortable up to 60 yards, or Gay, who booted a 54-yarder in high school.

As for Hicken, the sophomore from Highland High who backed up Phillips last year, Whittingham said, “He kind of fell out of the competition and didn’t kick as well as the other two.”

Hicken handled kickoff duties for the Utes last year, but Whittingham said punter Mitch Wishnowsky has the edge after another close battle.

“Mitch and Hayes are battling, but if we had to do it right now, Mitch is the guy,” Whittingham said.

The Utes also must replace long snapper Chase Dominguez, a four-year starter at the position. Tight end Harrison Handley is expected to be the long snapper, but he’s been battling an injury and if he can’t go, Alex Whittingham, Kyle's son, will handle long-snapper duties.