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Former 'hacker' Whittingham takes over Utah's special teams

Published April 4, 2014 11:43 am

Utes football • Jay Hill's exit leads coach, a high school kicker, to take over spunky unit.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Once upon a time, Kyle Whittingham was a kicker.

Or rather, he clarified, a "hacker."

Utah's head coach says he was "the best of the worst" at Provo High. Not easily confused with Tom Dempsey, he estimates his range at "about 12 yards."

"A lot of fakes. A lot of going for it on fourth down."

And so when Whittingham coaches honorable mention All-Pac 12 kicker Andy Phillips, he often talks golf instead.

"That's probably where we've connected most," said Phillips, who blushed while admitting that Whittingham has beaten him over nine holes. "Kicking's a lot like golfing. Leg swing, golf swing, mentally — it's crazy how much they overlap."

Whittingham has taken a page from the playbook of former Utah coach Urban Meyer this spring, becoming special teams coordinator to fill the vacancy left by Weber State head coach Jay Hill.

It's not so foreign, really. Twenty-five years ago, Whittingham was special teams coordinator for three seasons at Idaho State. He's also been involved with coaching a phase of special teams in past years as head coach — and now he simply oversees that ensemble effort.

Wide receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield coaches kickoff returns; cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah coaches punt returns, safeties coach Morgan Scalley coaches kickoff coverage, offensive line coach Jim Harding coaches PATs and field goals and running backs coach Dennis Erickson helps the kickers with their mind-set. Whittingham handles the punt team.

"At first I didn't really know what to think about it, but we're about three weeks into spring ball right now and it couldn't be better," said junior All-Pac 12 punter Tom Hackett. "He's a lot chiller than Coach Hill is."

For the most part, at least. The usually mild-mannered Whittingham became animated in demonstrating to punt team linemen the 2-yard spacing he was looking for on the edge of the line Thursday.

But the punt and place-kicking game seems unlikely to become a source of too much frustration for Whittingham this season.

In Phillips and Hackett, the Utes had two of the best boots around in 2013, finishing tied for 26th in field goal percentage (Phillips hit 17 of 20 for an 85 percent clip) and 12th in net punting average at 40.2 yards.

Where the 2013 Utes struggled most was on kickoff returns and kickoff coverage. They were 109th in average kickoff returns at 18.6 yards per return and 94th in average kickoff return yards allowed at 22.91.

After just 11 touchbacks on 58 kickoffs in 2013, Phillips hinted that there may be fewer attempts to pin the opposing returner in the corner of the field.

"This year, I think we're just going to try to boom the ball, which I like because that's kind of my strength, is a big leg."

In Whittingham's favor is that unlike Hill — who was also tight ends coach ­— he is free to devote his time to special teams during position group meetings. Sophomore long-snapper Chase Dominguez said that helps him to focus singularly on special teams.

"He's more organized in his work," Dominguez said. "He's more hands-on, as well. For the meetings we have, he's really intense and he gets really into it. Coach Hill was kinda — because he also did tight ends — he was a little all over the place."

A former U.S. Ski Team downhiller, Phillips hopes to goad Whittingham up on the slopes — where he has an undisputed advantage — but thinks his coach is afraid of the headlines if his star kicker gets injured with a goggle-eyed coach in tow.

Hackett said he also might "heckle" Whittingham into a puntoff — a challenge Hill made the mistake of accepting.

"Coach Hill talked a lot of talk but didn't walk much of a walk. Coach Whitt hasn't gotten that arrogant yet."

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper