MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Mitch Wishnowsky called it basically a dream start to the NFL.
It’s hard to argue against that.
Not only is the former Utah punter excelling in his first NFL season with San Francisco, he is headed to the championship game, as the 49ers advanced to Sunday’s Super Bowl LIV against the Kansas City Chiefs at Hard Rock Stadium (4:30 p.m. MST, TV: FOX).
“There’s not much I would change. To make the Super Bowl in my first year is pretty amazing,” Wishnowsky said in an interview Wednesday in Miami Beach.
Beyond that, the rookie is learning under a veteran special teamer in 49ers kicker Robbie Gould, a 15-year pro whose resume includes playing for three different teams — 11 years with the Chicago Bears — hitting nearly 400 field goals at an 86.8% conversion clip, making first-team All-Pro in 2006 and playing in his second Super Bowl this weekend.
“Robbie’s made my first year so much easier than if, like, I had another rookie kicker. He’s level-headed; he’s done it all,” Wishnowsky said. “He’s extremely smart. He knows kick returners or punt returners, whether they don’t like running to their left or their right, what punts they drop most. He’s a wizard and he helps me out a lot.”
Gould, likewise, speaks highly of his special teams mate. Wishnowsky averaged 44.9 yards per punt during the regular season, with a 41.6-net average, and pinned 44.2% of his punts inside the 20. That’s ninth in the league.
“He’s been great. Obviously he comes in, he prepares. He’s got a lot of punts we are able to utilize, take into a game plan that helps our punt team do things other punt teams might not be able to do,” Gould said. “His work ethic and preparing, watching film, watching his technique going into games has been second to none. That’s why you see him have the season he had.”
The steely veteran is grateful to pass on his knowledge. It’s a rite of passage among the special teams brotherhood.
“When I was a rookie, I had kickers who were in their eighth and seventh years. It was nice for me to be able to have those older guys to rely on,” Gould said. “I’m always here for him to be able to go through situations or talk through something on the sideline — if there’s a difference in direction in winds or punts, or this returner’s going to do this, how to scout them. It’s nice to just give him that information so that he learns how to do it and eventually he passes it along to another younger kid.”
The learning curve wasn’t a huge shock for Wishnowsky, either, as he had already built relationships that helped as he transitioned to being a pro.
“I have friends in the NFL ... like a few of the other punters I’m mates with. I’d already sort of been told and knew what to expect. A good punt in college is not necessarily a good punt in the NFL. I’m definitely still learning a lot but there’s not one thing that stands out as like, wow that shocked me,” he said.
Wishnowsky and Gould had a pre-game card routine, too, at least for a little while.
“We started playing a bit of Uno, but we sorta stopped doing that when Robbie got injured,” Wishnowsky said. Gould missed three games with a quadriceps injury November. “Around the time we were playing Uno (before), he was doing recovery and rehab. That stopped and we were still winning, so we sorts scrapped the Uno. Other than that, there’s not much pregame routine.”
So, who was the Uno champion?
“He was unbelievable at the beginning of the season, then I just started catching up but he was playing absolutely incredible. I don’t know where he picked up the game of Uno but he’s pretty damn good at it,” Gould said.
In Sunday’s matchup, Wishnowsky will go against one of his former Ute teammates, offensive tackle Jackson Barton. Don’t expect any smack talk, though.
“I haven’t yet, and I’m not much of a smack talker. Jackson Barton certainly isn’t much of a smack talker,” Wishnowsky said. “I think Cody (Barton, linebacker with the Seattle Seahawks) got all the smack talk of the Barton brothers.”
The level-headed Wishnowsky hasn’t had much time to reflect on the opportunity ahead this Sunday. That’s for later.
“That’s sort of something that might hit later after the game. After the NFC championship, you get a small amount of time to reflect on it and then it’s basically back to work,” he said. “After the game, that’s something where I put the feet up — might go to Hawaii, put my feet up and reflect.”