Tom Hackett wishes he could have exchanged his two Ray Guy Awards for an NFL punting job. Now, two fellow Utes, Mitch Wishnowsky and Matt Gay, will find out what one major trophy will do for each of them in the NFL draft.
After their punting and place-kicking careers converged to give Utah one of the best pairs of senior specialists in college football history, Wishnowsky and Gay may earn further distinctions this week. Only a few kickers usually are drafted, so having two specialists picked from the same school would be remarkable.
Will it happen?
Mock drafts suggest Wishnowsky will be taken in a late round Saturday (the seven-round draft starts Thursday) and Gay subsequently will sign with a team of his choice. “As most kickers know, chances are a lot higher of you being an undrafted free agent,” Gay said on the 4th Down Experience podcast.
The 2018 draft was a breakthrough for specialists, with four punters and two kickers picked. In 2015, only a punter was drafted.
Hackett went undrafted in 2016 after winning his two national awards with the Utes. He signed with the New York Jets, believing he could beat out seventh-round pick Lac Edwards, a fellow Australian from Sam Houston State. The competition ended quickly, when the Jets signed a quarterback in late July and cut Hackett to make room on the roster. Edwards remains the Jets’ punter.
Hackett's experience tells him Wishnowsky, another Australian, has a much better chance to make an NFL team, due to his strong leg. “The good ones are accurate and powerful. ... He's just got the strength, and he's been able to prove that,” said Hackett, the Utes' radio sideline reporter.
Wishnowsky has performed well in Senior Bowl practices, the NFL Scouting Combine, Utah’s Pro Day and private workouts for multiple teams, another indication of the league’s interest in him. The Jets and Chicago sent their special teams coordinators to Utah’s Pro Day in late March; the coaches were said to be overwhelmed by the performance of Wishnowsky, in particular. “Pretty much every scout I’ve talked to said they’d never been to a school with the caliber of specialists that we had as a tandem,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said.
In early April, Whittingham said, Wishnowsky produced a 5.5-second hang time on a punt (“I’ve never seen that. The guy just keeps getting better and better.”) and a 4.6-second mark on a kickoff (“Off the charts, as well.”) in a workout.
Wishnowsky kicked off for the Utes in 2017 and was the holder for place-kicks for three years. Using the punter as the holder is the NFL model, for the sake of efficient practice. Some punters also do the kickoffs.
He averaged 45.2 yards as a senior, ranking second in the Pac-12 in punting behind Stanford’s Jake Bailey, and becoming Utah’s first three-time All-American. One of Wishnowsky’s best traits was keeping his punts from going into the end zone. With the Utes leading at Washington State (they eventually lost), Wishnowsky placed three consecutive punts at the 10-yard line.
Wishnowsky and Bailey are widely viewed as the top punters in the draft. “Mitch has got the power over Jake, but Jake's got the consistency,” Hackett said. “Using a draft pick on a punter is rare. You've got to find teams that are in desperate need of a punter.”
San Francisco is one such team. Wishnowsky was scheduled to work out for the 49ers, who are familiar with Bailey, from nearby Stanford.
Gay is ranked among the best kickers in the class, with LSU’s Cole Tracy as the top candidate to be drafted. An Orem High School graduate, Gay made 56 of 65 field goals in two seasons, winning the Lou Groza Award in 2017. He went through stretches of the 2018 season with few opportunities, but then hit 6 of 6 field goals to set a school record in a victory over Oregon.
Gay replaced Wishnowsky on kickoffs last season and recently has worked on that part of his game with former NFL kicker John Carney in San Diego.