Utah junior kicker Matt Gay became the program’s first winner of the Lou Groza Collegiate Place-Kicker Award on Thursday night, the highlight of a journey from college soccer player to walk-on football player to the best college placekicker in the country.
The journey also included the inspiration of a high school friend who wasn’t able to see Gay’s success in person.
The announcement came as part of the Home Depot College Football Awards from the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, where Gay, punter Mitch Wishnowsky and Utes coach Kyle Whittingham were in attendance.
Wishnowsky was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award, won by Texas punter Michael Dickson.
Gay, who played one season of high school football, stepped into huge shoes as the Utes kicker following Andy Phillips, who earned All-Pac-12 honors each of his four seasons and graduated as the program’s record holder in field goals and points scored.
“I’ve always been a really really confident kid, confident in pretty much everything that I do and my ability and what I can do,” Gay said. “I like to be the best at everything I do. You can ask my friends. When we do something, I’m competitive. I knew that Utah specialists had always been good — Louie Sakoda, Andy Phillips.
“Coming in, you kind of hear that they have that track record. I knew I had some big shoes to fill and was confident enough to step in. It drove me to be better in practice, work a little harder. … I kind of wanted to come out and prove to people, prove to myself that all those years I would say [I could kick that field goal] that I could actually do it.”
Gay, a walk-on who earned a scholarship in October, came to the Utes after playing two seasons of college soccer at Utah Valley University. He credited his friend and former Orem High athlete Parker Overly for “pushing” him to try kicking in college.
Parker was two years behind Gay in high school, but played on the varsity football team when Gay kicked as a senior.
“He became one of my best friends,” Gay said. “He was always like, ‘Dude, you can kick in the NFL. You need to quit playing soccer and kick.’ Every time I’d see him, we’d always sit down and talk about it. He was like, ‘I’ll be your agent when you’re in the NFL.’ ”
Overly died in a car accident in April. Gay was still trying to find an opportunity to kick in college when the accident occurred. Gay said he talked to his friend about an hour before the accident. Throughout the season, Gay has worn tape on his left wrist with Overly’s initials written on it.
“He’s with me every day,” Gay said. “He’s watching, looking down on me. He’s been to every single game, every single kick. I know he’s seen it all. He’s probably stoked up there right now.”
After getting an opportunity to kick in the season opener, Gay finished the regular season leading the nation with 27 field goals, a Utah single-season record, including eight field goals of 50 yards or more. Gay made 27 of 31 field goal attempts overall.
Gay’s longest field goal of the season came from 56 yards against San Jose State, and he matched that against against Washington State. His 118 points ranked ninth in Football Bowl Subdivision and second in the Pac-12. He made all 37 of his point-after attempts.
During the season, he received word that the NCAA had granted him an additional season of eligibility through a clock extension related to his LDS Church mission.
Wishnowsky, a junior from Perth, Australia, won the Ray Guy Award as well as earning consensus All-America honors in 2016. Both Wishnowsky and Gay were were named to The Associated Press All-Pac-12 Conference First Team on Thursday, and both were named to the Walter Camp All-America Second Team on Thursday night.
Utah and Utah State were among seven teams awarded the 2017 American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Academic Achievement Award on Thursday, given to programs which recorded a 100 percent graduation rate for members of their freshman football student-athlete class of 2010.
Utah State also got an individual honor on Thursday, as defensive back Jalen Davis was named a Walter Camp Foundation First Team All-American.