Andrew Strauch remembers Utah's 2016 visit to the Rose Bowl as “probably one of the best days of my life.”
That’s because he was kicking for UCLA, not playing for a Bruins defense that allowed 332 rushing yards to Utah’s Joe Williams in a 52-45 loss.
Strauch made a 39-yard field goal and six extra points that afternoon, taking advantage of by far his biggest kicking opportunity during four years in UCLA’s program. That explains why he’s in Utah’s preseason camp as a graduate transfer, competing with fellow walk-ons Jadon Redding of Virginia and Nels Haltom of Bountiful for the job vacated by Matt Gay, a Lou Groza Award winner and a fourth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The competition is “as unresolved now as it was on Day One,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said Friday, with a slight grimace after the team's ninth practice. “But we've still got, what, another three weeks to go? So no panic is setting in yet. We're just waiting for some separation. I don't want to paint the picture they've all been bad; [but] not one has separated himself from the pack.”
Whittingham’s biggest complaint about his offense in the Pac-12 era is how often the Utes failed to finish drives, settling for field goals. The consolation was that Andy Phillips and Gay made most of their attempts for the past six seasons. What happens if the Utes start missing them?
The Utes appear to have adequately replaced star punter Mitch Wishnowsky with another Australian, Ben Lennon. Utah’s fan base seems divided about the kicking game. Some are horrified about losing another elite-level kicker, with the latest reminder coming last weekend when Gay made a 62-yard kick in a Tampa Bay practice. Others figure if the Utes could find Phillips (via a world-class skiing career) and Gay (college soccer) from nontraditional backgrounds, the next guy will be more than adequate.
In that sense, this history might be comforting in its own way:
Strauch scored a total of 12 points in his UCLA career, two fewer than Phillips produced for Utah in that 2016 game at the Rose Bowl, as then-UCLA coach Jim Mora soon went back to his scholarship kicker.
Redding was declared Utah’s No. 2 kicker after spring practice, behind Chayden Johnston, who originally beat out Gay in 2017 (Johnston retired from football in late April).
Haltom was not picked in a one-day tryout at Utah State in 2016, similar to Gay's experience with BYU.
Yeah, this will be interesting. At stake is a starting job in the Aug. 29 season opener at BYU, plus a scholarship to be awarded to the winner, Whittingham said. The possibility exists, based on the legend of Gay, that the first pick won't keep the position forever.
“It’s going to be a dogfight, even throughout the season,” the left-footed Strauch said. “It’s going to be back and forth, back and forth. Obviously, there’s pressure — especially outside pressure, but you really have to internalize it, make every kick count.”
Redding and Strauch each contacted Utah, knowing there was a kicking vacancy. Haltom, from Bountiful High School via Grossmont College in southern California, was added after attending Utah's kicking camp this summer.
Redding outperformed Johnston at times during the spring, but his only field goal attempt of the Red-White Game hit the left upright from 31 yards. Whittingham named Johnston the No. 1 kicker, but five days later, the Bingham graduate announced he was giving up football to pursue a career in health care. Redding knew other candidates would arrive during the summer. “The more guys, the better competition,” he said.
“One things I was always impressed with is he never was afraid to miss,” said Bill Brown, Redding’s coach at Colonial Forge High School in Virginia. “He handled pressure extremely well. … He has confidence that’s a little bit of arrogance. He believes in himself that strongly. A good kicker’s got to have that.”
Redding attended a junior college in New York, improved his grades and worked at a kicking camp before enrolling at Utah in time for spring practice.
“He had to reroute his career, and that helped him mature,” Brown said.
Haltom thrived at Grossmont, handling kickoff duties his first year and then becoming the full-time kicker. He made 14 of 15 field goals, including a 52-yarder.
“I'm excited to keep competing with these guys,” Haltom said. “They're really good.”
As good as Phillips and Gay?
That would be asking an awful lot. Just to be sure, the Ute offense may want to score more touchdowns.