Utah punter Mitch Wishnowsky never will forget his last visit to Levi's Stadium as a college football player. He's hoping to have much better memories in that venue, now that he's a member of the San Francisco 49ers.
Wishnowsky continued the Utes' 2019 trend of surprisingly high draft positions Saturday, when the 49ers picked him early in the fourth round. His status as the 110th player taken in the draft has been topped by only four punters since 2000.
And then Tampa Bay took kicker Matt Gay early in the fifth round, completing a remarkable day for Utah’s specialists. Consider that in 2015, only one specialist was picked in the entire draft — and the two Utes went in the first 145 picks of 2019, as the first two kickers selected.
In the predraft process, Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said, “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.”
Utah's draft results were historic, in the era of the seven-round draft that started in 1994. Clemson had a punter and kicker taken in 1985, but one of those picks came in the 10th round.
After the second-round selection of safety Marquise Blair by Seattle on Friday, Utah’s draftees came in unprecedented pairs: the kickers and the Barton brothers. Linebacker Cody Barton, a third-round choice of Seattle, was followed Saturday by his brother Jackson, an offensive tackle who went to Indianapolis in the seventh round.
Of Utah’s nine senior starters in 2018, five were drafted. Soon after the draft ended, linebacker Chase Hansen signed with New Orleans, safety Corrion Ballard signed with Carolina and offensive lineman Lo Falemaka signed with Seattle (and offensive guard Jordan Agasiva was invited to a Seahawks minicamp).
San Francisco needed a punter and invested heavily in Wishnowsky, a three-time All-American and three-time Ray Guy Award finalist. The Australian will receive a $3.3 million contract with a $756,789 signing bonus, according to The Athletic.
Judging by his reaction in a video published by the 49ers, Wishnowsky was overwhelmed by the selection.
Wishnowsky had a nice debut at Levi’s Stadium in Utah’s win over Indiana in the 2016 Foster Farms Bowl, punting well and holding the ball for Andy Phillips’ winning field goal at Santa Clara, Calif. But last November, he experienced “just excruciating pain” in the pregame warmup and said he “just battled through the game” as he punted four times for a 42.2-yard average in Utah’s Pac-12 championship game loss to Washington. He underwent an appendectomy three days later and had four weeks to recover for the Holiday Bowl.
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 do the kickoffs, so Wishnowsky will be prepared for those jobs.
Gay, from Orem High School, is joining a franchise with a fan base that's scarred by kicking troubles. Tampa Bay drafted Roberto Aguayo in the second round in 2016, and he proved to be a bust. Gay will be competing with veteran Cairo Santos for the Buccaneers' kicking job.
“I think the idea of this draft, really, with coach [Bruce] Arians and his new staff is, there’s no job promised to anybody right now,” John Spytek, Tampa Bay’s director of player personnel, told Buccaneers.com. “Coach says it to us all the time, there’s no job promised to anybody. There are no starters right now. You want a job, show up and compete."
Jackson Barton, from Brighton High School, will face difficult odds to make the Colts’ roster as a seventh-rounder, although four former Ute offensive linemen made opening-day rosters in 2017 — three of them as late-round picks. Ute line coach Jim Harding, who has produced six draftees in his five years at the school, tweeted, “I couldn’t be more proud of Jackson. He was a warrior in the program.”