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Utah football: Unlikely pair has Utes' punting spot-on

Published November 15, 2012 8:19 pm

College football • Sellwood, Hackett came late to the game, but have had a big impact.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

One guy came to Utah with hopes of playing in the NFL, even though he had no idea where the state was located or what the NFL was. The other was more known for his track achievements and soccer ability, and thought football was a crazy sport the first time he saw it.

Together, the two guys with accents make up one of the most potent punting duos in the country.

An often overlooked aspect of football, punting has been crucial for the Utes this year, particularly with the offense struggling as it is. That Tom Hackett and Sean Sellwood are two of the more unlikely successes in the sport, well, that only adds to the mystique.

Leave it to a South African and an Australian to rule a position like nobody has since the days of Louie Sakoda, a guy who became a cult figure on Utah's campus. Neither one has been crowned "King" like Sakoda was, but they do deserve their own honorary positions.

"Those guys, they're totally goofy guys," Utah quarterback Travis Wilson said. "We're always making fun of them with their accents, and Tom doesn't really know much about football at all, but they're both doing a great job."

Utah is third in the Pac-12 in net punting, averaging 39.7 yards. Sellwood ranks second in the league, averaging 47.3 yards per punt and would rank third nationally if he had enough punts to qualify. Hackett, who specializes in rugby-style kicks, has placed 11 of his 20 punts inside the 20-yard line. Of those, six have landed inside the 10-yard line and four have landed inside the 5-yard line.

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who, like many coaches, tends to leave the punters alone while they "do their thing," nevertheless is thankful for their contributions.

"They've been a real weapon for us this year," Whittingham said. "Both of them have been really consistent."

Sellwood moved with his family from South Africa to Utah 15 years ago. An all-state player in soccer and track star, Sellwood decided to give football a try while attending Judge Memorial High School. He admits being clueless about the sport, but he could smack the heck out of the ball when told to do so.

He averaged 42.8 yards a punt, a number good enough to draw the attention of the Utes, who invited him aboard.

Sellwood redshirted in 2008, which allowed him to learn the nuances of his position from Sakoda. He then started pinning opponents deep in their territory and pulling in the awards in 2009.

One of his most memorable moments as a freshman came against Air Force when he pinned the Falcons inside their 10-yard line twice in the final four minutes. Last year he had 50 punts for 2,251 yards and ranked fourth in the league averaging 45 yards.

He was briefly ranked the top punter in the country earlier this year, an achievement he credited to his work in the offseason.

"It started last year and I just kept working at it," he said. "I worked hard on consistency, hitting balls over and over again and it is paying off."

While Sellwood came to America when his father was transferred for work, Hackett arrived with the goal of getting an education and a possible shot at the NFL — even if he had no idea what the league was all about when he got here.

Hackett went to a pro kicking school to learn how to boot spirals. His tapes were sent to a bunch of schools, including Utah. Special teams coordinator Jay Hill liked what he saw, and Hackett was invited to walk on with a preferred scholarship, meaning he was in line for one in the future.

His debut wasn't exactly what he imagined it would be, but it worked. Inserted against BYU, Hackett walked onto the field finally understanding what the rivalry was all about. Suddenly, he had a case of nerves even his laid-back Aussie attitude couldn't handle.

"Wearing all the gear, helmets and stuff, I'd never worn this stuff before I got here, then on my first snap I fumbled," he said. "The stadium was loud. I'm not going to lie, and my heart sunk. I picked it up and instinct just took over and I kicked it and it spiraled. I guess it was a good thing."

His punt landed on the 5-yard line, one of three that landed inside the 10-yard line that day. Hackett was awarded Pac-12 Special Team Player of the Week award, something that had to be explained to him.

"I learned it was a good thing," he said.

Hackett, who confesses he still doesn't understand all the rules of football, amuses his teammates with his lack of knowledge of the game and the country.

"I had no idea about Utah until I did some research and learned about Mormons," he said. "I didn't know it got cold here. People tell me to get a North Face jacket and a beanie and I'll be fine."

Comments like that make teammates such as John White shake their heads, but as long as the two keep placing kicks right where they should be, they have the admiration of their teammates.

"They're funny," White said. "But I love those guys. They get it done every week." —

Utah's punters

Tom Hackett

• 6-0, 190 lbs., Fr.

• Melbourne, Australia, Scotch College

Of note • Has 20 punts, 11 of which have landed inside the 10-yard line and four have landed inside the 5-yard line. ... Named the Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week after he placed three punts inside the 10-yard line against BYU.

Sean Sellwood

• 6-3, 203, Sr.

• Salt Lake City, Judge Memorial H.S.

Of note • Ranks second in the Pac-12 averaging 47.3 yards a punt. ... Tied with Louie Sakoda with 50 career punts of 50-plus yards. ... Ranks fourth all-time with 8,169 career punt yards. ... Had 50 punts for 2,251 yards in 2011. —

Arizona at Utah

P Saturday, 8 p.m.

TV • ESPNU