The conditions were splendid. There was not a single gust of wind. It was the ideal Southern California fall evening in Los Angeles, and Matt Gay backpedaled after lining himself up before the ball was snapped back in his direction, before his job to swing that powerful right leg through the ball was upon him.
He was 33 yards away, an attempt that Utah fans — and later, all of college football — grew accustomed to as a chip shot for Matt Gay. The ball eventually was pressed into the grass inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and when the future Lou Groza Award winning kicker swung through, he knew it was off.
“For no apparent reason,” he said, “I missed it.”
Gay smiles about it now, but it’s the moment of his breakout, storybook 2017 campaign that still eats at him. “Purely missed it,” he said, smiling, but also shaking his head.
Every player has to reset at the outset of a new season, including the best kicker in college football. But he draws back on his missteps — of which there were very few — to uncover motivation heading into his senior season this fall.
“Tough act to follow,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “That’s his challenge is an encore performance this year and be able to continue to produce at the level that he did last year.”
The one-time Utah Valley soccer player turned consensus All-American went 30 of 34 in his first year as Utah’s kicker, led the nation in field goals made, field goals made per game (2.31) and was tied with five 50-yard-plus field goals made in 2017. As Whittingham noted Monday after the conclusion of the spring camp practice, Gay rarely flinched last year.
Now it’s about replicating that in 2018.
“What he’s got to do is just not press,” Whittingham said. “He’s got to take the same approach he did last year, which last year he’s not a guy that gets uptight about things. He’s very easygoing. He’s a big-time talent.”
The kicking game, Gay said, is more often than not the kicker versus himself. His four misses in 2017 he’s dissected, finding ways to fix what went wrong on each. He’s still honing kicking techniques, which he’s implementing now with a year of experience on his right boot.
“It’s just a battle against myself,” he said.
It’s been a few months since Gay stood on the stage alongside ESPN’s Chris Fowler holding the Lou Groza trophy, awarded to the best kicker in the country. Gay vows the attention and accolades haven’t changed him or his perspective at all.
“Life’s just continuing on,” he said. “You’re still doing the same thing. You’re still trying to get better. I obviously want to repeat and see if I can do it again this next year. This is my senior year, so I want to prepare for a future after this.”
Playing it safe in spring
Utah’s first scrimmage of spring camp is scheduled for Friday afternoon at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Which players don’t suit up remains to be seen, but Whittingham said Monday that he doesn’t envision quarterbacks Tyler Huntley, Jack Tuttle or Jason Shelley being featured. Whittingham also said junior running back Zack Moss might receive limited live reps this spring to preserve the 1,000-yard runner.
“We’ll make those determinations come Thursday,” he said.
Rounding out the group
Utah’s young wide receiver corps will have some serious competition this fall. Whittingham said he’s looking forward to the arrival of sophomore Britain Covey, who recently returned from his LDS Church mission in Chile, as well as highly-touted high school recruits Solomon Enis and Terrell Perriman.
“I think come fall we’re going to be right where we need to be,” Whittingham said.