Kragthorpe: After one kick that barely missed, Chayden Johnston becomes a footnote in Ute history, thanks to Matt Gay

Freshman kicker won the job in August, only to lose it in season opener. Gay went on to win the Lou Groza Award<br>

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Monday, August 7, 2017.

Chayden Johnston jogged onto the Rice-Eccles Stadium field to attempt a 45-yard field goal in Utah’s season opener vs. North Dakota, wearing bright orange shoes and having won the job over the country’s best kicker.

Johnston’s kick sailed wide left, but not by much. “Maybe a foot,” he said more than three months later, managing to smile. “Maybe.”

That’s how Johnston became a footnote in college football history.

The former Bingham High School star launched the first place-kick of a Ute season that would end with Matt Gay receiving the Lou Groza Award and being named a consensus All-American. The year started with Gay telling several friends not to bother coming to the game, because he wouldn’t be kicking.

Johnston was excited, having edged Gay in their preseason competition. Looking back, he said, “It was wonderful.”

And then Johnston missed his first kick, as a returned missionary competing in his first football game since he made two field goals in Bingham’s 2014 state championship victory over American Fork at Rice-Eccles. Ute coach Kyle Whittingham told Gay, “You have the next kick.”

Gay also got the next 67 kicks after that, counting field goals and extra points (punter Mitch Wishnowsky primarily does the kicking off). Johnston went from the possibility of kicking in every game for four seasons, as predecessor Andy Phillips did, to not dressing for Utah’s Pac-12 games. Or even attending them.

In recent Ute lore, Johnston’s weird season fits between Devonta’e Henry-Cole’s carrying the ball one time in 2016 and quarterback Cooper Bateman’s never taking a snap in 2017 as a graduate transfer from Alabama.

Asked if he replays that kick in his mind, Johnston said, “Sure, but it opened up many opportunities for me.”

That answer requires some explanation. But first, the what-ifs: Who knows how history would have been altered if Johnston’s kick had sneaked inside the left upright, or if the Ute offense had gotten him any closer to the south end zone’s goalposts?

“Had he made the first kick and continued to make ’em, then he would have been the guy,” Whittingham said. “So it’s just how things work out.”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes place kicker Chayden Johnston (12) reacts after missing a field goal attempt during the game at Rice-Eccles Stadium Thursday, August 31, 2017. Utah Utes are leading North Dakota Fighting Hawks 17-9 at halftime.

In mid-August, Whittingham had said of Johnston and Gay, “They both have strong legs. … They’re very poised and confident, seem to be able to handle pressure. But you never truly know until they’re under the lights at game time.”

That’s not to say Johnston wilted in the late-summer twilight. He just missed one kick, and barely so.

Here’s how it all happened: Utah’s second drive of the game looked promising, but a holding penalty nullified Troy McCormick’s run to the North Dakota 14-yard line. On third down, a completion to Darren Carrington II lost 2 yards. So Johnston’s field-goal try got a little longer.

Johnston couldn’t have known it at the time, but his season ended right then and there. By early October, Hayes Hicken (who occasionally kicks off) became No. 2 on the place-kicking depth chart. Pac-12 rules allow 70 players to travel for conference games and the same number can be housed in the team hotel prior to home games. Johnston no longer was one of them. He stayed away from the stadium on Saturdays, although he intends to make the Heart of Dallas Bowl trip.

“That’s how life is. It’s harsh,” Gay said, much more sensitively than that sounds. “I definitely feel bad, because if I was in his shoes, your first kick ever in college football, a 45-yarder — which is not an easy kick … to get that first opportunity and miss it by a foot and then get pulled, it’s kind of heartbreaking. Again, I had to take my opportunity and do what I could with it.”

Gay is thankful that unlike Johnston, he could ease into college football with a couple of extra points. He followed with field goals from 33, 32 and 49 yards in a 37-16 win, and the job he lost in camp was his for good. Later, an NCAA ruling gave Gay another year’s eligibility. So he’ll return in 2018, and defer Johnston’s career even longer.

“Chayden’s a very good kicker,” Whittingham said. “We have a lot of faith in Chayden and a lot of confidence in what he’s going to do for us down the road.”

Johnston shares that belief, supported by his family and fiancee, with their marriage coming soon. “It’s definitely been a frustrating season for all of us, not as planned,” he said. “But it definitely has been good for us.”

As a kinesiology major, Johnston dived into his classes and kept telling himself, “School’s paid for.” Gay credits Johnston for being “super supportive; a good friend, great teammate” in practice, reminding him about focus and technique. Johnston has become stronger in the weight room and improved his own kicking during what he labeled “a good year to be able to get back on my feet.”

All because he missed his big chance, by a foot.

About Chayden Johnston<br>Height/weight • 6-0, 160<br>Class • Freshman<br>High school • Bingham<br>LDS Church mission • Minneapolis<br>High school kicking/punting highlights • Made 23 of 34 field goals and 141 of 147 extra points in three seasons for Bingham, helping the Miners win two state championships. … Kicked two field goals in the Class 5A title game vs. American Fork at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2014. … Named the National Kicker of the Week after making both field-goal attempts vs. Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas, including a 47-yarder in overtime. … Averaged 42.4 punting yards as a senior and was named to the MaxPreps.com All-America second team.