Ben Lennon’s head bobbed as he stood behind the snapper and counted the 14 yards to his proper spot on the field. That’s the first thing Utah’s new punter learned during spring football practice, after figuring he could stand anywhere that seemed comfortable.
After the program’s historic showing in last month’s NFL Draft, Utah is starting over in the kicking game. The Utes’ proven formula, in this decade: find a punter from Australia and a kicker who skied internationally or played college soccer and watch them win a bunch of awards.
Maybe it is not quite that simple, although Lennon will wear the No. 33 that has become a “pretty cool tradition the Australians are sort of making here,” he said.
Lennon punted inconsistently this spring and initially struggled with the other part of his job description, holding the ball for extra points and field goals. And now there’s another dimension to those duties, with left-footed kicker Andrew Strauch joining the team — requiring a different method of catching the snap, on the opposite side.
Strauch’s arrival as a graduate transfer from UCLA became vital when Chayden Johnston gave up footballl with three years of eligibility remaining. That left freshman walk-on Jadon Redding as Utah’s only kicker, after he was inaccurate in the last two major events of the spring.
All these guys are being asked to do is replace two prime NFL prospects, after punter Mitch Wishnowsky (fourth round, San Francisco) and kicker Matt Gay (fifth round, Tampa Bay) were taken in the first 145 picks of the NFL draft.
SPECIALIZING IN KICKERS
Utah's punters and kickers of the past six seasons:
Tom Hackett (punter, 2012-15) • 2014 and ’15 Ray Guy Award winner; free-agent opportunity with the New York Jets.
Andy Phillips (kicker, 2013-16) • Second-team All-American in 2015; free-agent opportunity with Chicago.
Mitch Wishnowsky (punter, 2016-18) • 2016 Ray Guy Award winner, three-time finalist; fourth-round draft pick of San Francisco.
Matt Gay (kicker, 2017-18) • 2017 Lou Groza Award winner; fifth-round draft pick of Tampa Bay.
Lennon “is going to be just fine,” Ute coach Kyle Whitingham said.
Whittingham's confidence stems from Lennon's athletic ability as a former Australian Rules Football player and his training in the Pro Kick program that produced Ute punters Tom Hackett and Wishnowsky.
Wishnowsky punted at a California junior college for one season, adapting to American football. Hackett was able to ease into his Ute career as a short-punting specialist in 2012, alternating with Sean Sellwood.
“Benny's still learning a ton about the punting game and what it takes to be good, much like what you saw from me … but he'll grow,” said Hackett, the sideline reporter for Utah radio broadcasts. “He has a red-hot chance to be a really, really good college punter. He's very comfortable with it, especially on the move.”
That's why Hackett expects Whittingham to have Lennon roll out, especially early in the season, before adopting the traditional style of punting.
“He'll be shaking in his boots, the first couple of games,” Hackett said. But “the advantage Benny has over me is he did play professional football.”
Lennon, who will turn 24 in July, played five years in the Australian Football League. Knee, shoulder and hip injuries and glandular fever affected his career, and he eventually gave up his pro pursuits. As he wrote in an AFLplayers.com post last October, “This came as a shock to many people, but I wasn’t fussed, as I was more concerned on my overall well-being and knew I could achieve this by pursuing another path. Fast-forward 12 months, and here I am reflecting upon my AFL career, and it couldn’t have been any different from how I imagined it being. … I have now finally come to terms with all that has happened.”
Lennon tried becoming an electrician, joining a brother-in-law for a few shifts. “Long days, cold mornings,” he said this spring. “It wasn't for me.”
Punting and, eventually, a college football opportunity, became his new ambition. Lennon succeeded in Nathan Chapman's Pro Kick program and landed at Utah. If everything plays out as planned, Utah will have had an Australian punter for 11 straight years by the end of Lennon's college career in 2022.
Utah's kicking job, ably staffed by Andy Phillips and Gay for a combined six seasons, may need a one-year fix. That will become the case if Strauch beats out Redding in August.
Strauch performed well in his only real opportunity to kick for UCLA in four years — coincidentally enough, against Utah as a redshirt freshman in 2016. He made a 39-yard field goal and six extra points in a 52-45 loss to the Utes at the Rose Bowl. But then-coach Jim Mora then went back to J.J. Molson, who has kept the job ever since, and Strauch sought an opportunity to kick in his remaining season of eligibility.
He may find it at Utah, where Redding looked good at times in the spring, but finished behind Johnston as of the April 13 Red-White Game, according to Whittingham. Johnston made his announcement five days later.
Redding made field goals of 25 and 29 yards, but missed from 42 and 44 yards in Utah’s April 5 scrimmage. In the spring game, he hit the left upright from 31 yards on his only attempt.
Redding was known for his confidence in high school in Fredricksburg, Va., and he'll compete with Strauch.
“One thing I was always impressed with is he never was afraid to miss. He handled pressure extremely well,” said Bill Brown, his coach at Colonial Forge High School. In his 42 years of coaching, Brown said, Redding was “absolutely the best kicker; I can say that without hesitation.”
Strauch's hallmark was consistency at Piedmont (Calif.) High School, said his coach, Scott Coats. That's what Whittingham, who personally works with the specialists, will be looking for in August. The biggest criticism of Utah's offense in the Phillips/Gay era involved how the Utes so often had to settle for field goals.
Imagine what will happen, though, if Utah’s kickers start missing them.