SALT LAKE CITY — Perhaps the easiest coaching job for the Utah football team this year belongs to the special teams coach, who gets to work with the two guys who are projected to be all-Pac-12 players, even All-Americans, in the upcoming season — place-kicker Andy Phillips and punter Tom Hackett.
Who’s the lucky coach? None other than head football coach Kyle Whittingham, who took over special teams coach duties earlier this year when Jay Hill left to become the head coach at Weber State.
When asked what he does to coach Phillips and Hackett, Whittingham laughs and says, “Just stay out of their way and not screw them up.’’
The Utah kicking situation is a long way from the days when Ron McBride was the coach and would often hide his face when his kickers were attempting field goals. In fact, Utah might be enjoying its best kicking situation ever, at least on par with the days when Louie Sakoda handled the punting and placekicking duties a few years back.
In his first year as the Ute punter, Hackett was a first-team all-Pac-12 selection last year after leading the league in punt yards, average (43.4 ypp), punts inside the 20 (27), 50-yard punts (19) and longest punt (70 yards).
Phillips earned the place-kicking job in camp as a walk-on freshman and was a revelation as he made his first 12 field goal tries and was named to midseason All-American teams. He eventually finished with 17 of 20, tying for second in the league in percentage while also making all 41 of his PAT tries. He’s increased his distance this year as he showed in the spring game when he made a 59-yard field goal.
The good news for Utah is that both Hackett and Phillips are underclassmen as Hackett will be a junior this year and Phillips a sophomore.
The two kickers are close and work out together daily since Hackett is also the holder on place kicks. Both have unusual stories as neither came to Utah the way most players are recruited. In fact, neither had ever played football before coming to Utah.
Hackett was an Australian Rules Football player back in his home country, who had been kicking a ball most of his life, but was nothing special in high school. He joined a group called Pro Kick Australia and learned about punting, then sent out a few videos on YouTube. Hill contacted him, and Hackett ended up at Utah.
“It took me about a year and two months to get the punting technique down, but now that I got it down, it’s just a matter of concentration and executing what I need to do,’’ he says.
Phillips had never played in a football game before walking on to the team last year. His last experience in any sort of game had come as a freshman in high school soccer. He attended the Winter Sports High School in Park City and competed on the U.S. ski team as an alpine racer from 2007-2011, before going on an LDS mission to Norway. At 25, he is the third-oldest player on the team.
Both players are aware of some of the preseason hype they are getting but are trying not to let it affect their preparation for the season.
“It’s nice I guess — you can’t let it get to your head,’’ Hackett said of being the preseason all-Pac-12 punter. “I pretend it didn’t happen (last year). I’m not No. 1 in the nation, so I have people to chase. I’ve got 10 other people in front of me.’’
Phillips is the same, saying he reads things on the Internet or social media, but doesn’t let it get to his head.
“I try not to think about it,’’ he says. “It’s nice to get that recognition, but at the same time I have to keep a level head and just remember I can’t ride off my success last year. It’s a whole new year, new team, new attitude, so I have to make sure I do my job, kicking the ball through the uprights.’’
As for Whittingham being their position coach, both players praise him, even though he was never a place-kicker, though he punted in high school.
“Coach Whit has helped me out going through the motions of my punting technique concentrating on what I can do,’’ said Hackett. “We sit down in film together and go through the mechanics. I teach him a few things, he teaches me a few things. We just go through technique and listen to each other. We have decent conversations about the punting lifestyle, what I need to do because my body is different from everyone else’s (at 5-11, 187 pounds, he’s smaller than most punters).’’
Of all things, golf is a major component in the Phillips-Whittingham relationship. Phillips is an excellent golfer and Whittingham is an “improving” golfer and the two golfed a few times during the summer.
“I’m lucky because I can relate a lot about kicking to golf and when we go golf, we talk about the different techniques,’’ Phillips says. “Coach Whit knows everything there is to know about football. He admits he doesn’t know about the techniques for kicking, but over time we taught it to him.’’
When he was asked about his two outstanding kickers, Whittingham deflects any credit.
“It’s not due at all to the position coach, it’s all on to the talent of those two players,’’ he said. “They’re two talented and mentally tough kids.’’
So heading into the season, which begins two weeks from today, the least of Utah’s worries on the field should come in the kicking department.
“It’s a great weapon to have both a punter and a place-kicker that are potential all-Pac-12 guys,’’ said Whittingham. “They’re both coming off extremely solid years, and that will only make us better if those guys can continue to play up to expectations.’’