The trio stand a few feet in front of Kyle Whittingham, each awaiting his call.
The calls come at random, so whoever is up next hears the bark of Utah’s coach and trots into the situation he’s been tossed into over and over again. On one sideline at Utah’s baseball field, the defense preps the players hoping to snag the starting kicker job by heckling them.
A defensive lineman screams, “Yo, Bingham sucks!” in jest at freshman Chayden Johnston.
Another follows with, “Let’s see what you got Highland High!” at sophomore Hayes Hicken.
They have to dig a bit deep to remember where the guy whose jersey has no name or number on the back came from. But they eventually figure it out. “Hey, Orem sucks!” they tease senior Matt Gay. When one place-kicker lets loose with his right leg, players guess left or right. But if it splits the small, silver field-goal posts at the baseball field, they know it.
The sound of the thud of the football against the tin shed is an exclamation point for each kicker trying to distance himself from the pack. While position battles like quarterback, running back, offensive line and the defensive backfield crowd the pages of newspapers and occupy the radio waves, Utah’s kicking game needs solving, and soon.
WHO WANTS TO KICK IT?
Utah’s place-kicking job is one of several positions up-for-grabs this fall camp and features three kickers. Here are the three leading contenders for the spot.
Chayden Johnston • Freshman, Bingham High
Matt Gay • Senior, Orem High, former UVU soccer player
Hayes Hicken • Sophomore, Highland High, last year’s kick-off specialist
Big shoes to fill • Utah must replace the kicking shoes of school record holder Andy Phillips, who left the program as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 427 points and a school record 84 made field goals.
Former kicker Andy Phillips left as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 427 points and a school-record 84 made field goals. As Whittingham waits to see which kicker steps forth and grabs hold of the spot, he says Johnston and Gay have emerged as the top two contenders for now.
“They both have strong legs, times are good; they’re very poised and confident, seem to be able to handle pressure,” Whittingham said. “But you never truly know until they’re the lights at game time.”
The trio of Utes say the competition eventually will produce the most reliable kicker for the season-opener Aug. 31. Hicken, Utah’s kickoff specialist a year ago, summed it up appropriately.
“If they’re going to win it outright,” he said, “let them win it outright, you know what I mean?”
That’s the mantra.
Johnston, a true freshman, said it didn’t take long for him to get back into the swing of things after returning home from an LDS church mission in Minnesota, where he admitted there weren’t many opportunities to tee up a ball and let fly on those rare days off.
“I definitely thought about it,” he said. “You definitely have to be aware of the future.”
Gay’s future was once as a center forward on the Utah Valley University men’s soccer team. The former Orem Tiger kicked one year in high school — his senior year way back in 2011. After eight goals and five assists in two years with the Wolverines, football came calling again. He started kicking on a regular basis this May.
As for trying out things at Utah?
“I‘m kind of lucky,” he said. “A guy knew a guy and got me up here to get a little kicking tryout.”
Gay impressed. He came back for a kicking camp in the summer, won it and was asked to walk on in preseason camp. Gay admittedly still is getting accustomed to the new full-time kicking motion. But as a center striker, he was tasked with making strong enough contact to make a difference.
“I was on the ball,” he said. “I was trying to keep it down, trying to score some goals. Now I’m trying to get it up and through the uprights.”
Whittingham has been impressed in camp by the former UVU soccer player, so much so that they’ve discussed the possibility of him being able to obtain another year of eligibility through a possible NCAA hardship case.
“He kind of fell into our lap, and if he ends up being our kicker, that’ll be quite the story,” Whittingham said. “Kind of like the Andy Phillips story, in a sense.”