The Lou Groza Award stands in the window, like a golden football ready to be kicked. Three trophies representing the Ray Guy Award, showing a punter’s follow-through, are aligned on a nearby shelf.
The displays in the entrance of the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center honor Utah’s specialists of the past and present, with the strong possibility of additions to come. Ute kicker Matt Gay and punter Mitch Wishnowsky enter their senior seasons with hopes of earning more trophies, but only as a bonus for meeting their own standards.
Any expectations that come with preseason All-America selections and the potential for more awards are topped by what they demand of themselves and each other. They’ll also be competing for the job of kicking off, held by Wishnowsky last season.
Reviewing his first year of college football, Gay said, “Well, I missed four field goals, so I can definitely improve," skipping the part about making a Pac-12 record 30 kicks.
Wishnowsky was a Ray Guy Award finalist in 2017 after winning the trophy the previous season — but “personally, I underperformed last year,” he said. “I could have done a lot better.”
Those attitudes tell the story behind their success, with more to come in 2018. The Utes are in the last stage of offseason conditioning, in advance of preseason practice that starts Aug. 1. The specialists are like everybody else in this phase, lifting weights and running, working only occasionally on kicking early in the week.
In the summer, “You kind of lose focus on the fact there is a ball involved,” Gay said good-naturedly.
The kicks will come soon enough. The irony surrounding what has become a hallmark of Utah’s program is that field goals and punts are signs of offensive shortcomings. The less frequently Gay and Wishnowsky showcase their skills, the better for the Utes overall. They will remain vital, undoubtedly.
“No one knew who I was last year, so I had nothing to lose,” said Gay, a former Utah Valley University soccer player. “Now, my name’s out there a little bit, so people have higher expectations. What they didn’t know is I had those expectations for myself, before other people had them.”
Gay hopes to have a game-winning opportunity in 2018. His only dramatic moment at Rice-Eccles Stadium came in April, when his 57-yard field goal as time expired gave the Red team a 25-23 victory. “Yeah, it’s just the spring game, but it’s still a game,” Gay said. “Your teammates are going to be mad if you don’t hit it.”
So he’ll draw from that experience, while also absorbing his rare misses last season — a 50-yarder vs. Stanford, a 33-yarder at USC, a 43-yarder at Oregon and a 45-yarder vs. Washington State. “You’ve got to remember what it feels like to to miss, to be able to make 'em,” Gay said.
The Ute specialists' bond is boosted by the NFL model of having the punter hold for place-kicks, meaning they spend more time together. Tom Hackett was a holder, while winning two Ray Guy Awards for punting. From his perspective, Wishnowsky watched Gay’s technique improve throughout last season. “I honestly think Matt’s going to be get better this year,” he said.
Wishnowsky expects himself to do so, returning to his 2016 form. The numbers can be deceiving, based on field position, but Wishnowsky’s average dropped from 47.7 yards to 43.9 yards last season. In November, he averaged 41.6 yards. “I didn’t have the same pop on the ball,” he said.
He intends to do more lifting during the season and might alter his game-day routine to include running in the morning, rather than resting his leg. The Australian believes he can master both the rugby-style and traditional punting methods. Maximizing his ability means more to him than collecting another trophy. “If I focus on that,” he said, “the awards will come with it.”
That’s why Gay and Wishnowsky will be fun to watch again in 2018, even if Ute fans hope the bulk of their work comes merely on extra-point attempts.