Kicking ass and taking names

Griffin Adams
Andy Phillips lines up to kick a field goal last season.

Andy Phillips lines up to kick a field goal last season.

After seeing success last season that had not been present in the Utes’ kicking game for a few years, both the U’s kicker and punter are garnering preseason praise as they try to kick their way to the top.

Sophomore placekicker Andy Phillips was named to the 2014 Lou Groza award watchlist, an award given to the best kicker in college football, while junior punter Tom Hackett was named to the Ray Guy award watchlist, an award given to the best punter.

Phillips, who had never kicked in a competitive game before last fall, is no stranger to the award, as he was a semifinalist to receive it in 2013. The placekicker was one of the hottest stories surrounding the football team last season because he gave up a skiing career for a sport he had never played in football.

The switch has proven to be a positive one, as Phillips hit 17-of-20 field goals in 2013 to go along with his perfect 41-for-41 mark on extra points. In addition, Phillips only missed two field goals from 40 yards out or farther, going 9-for-11 from that distance.

Phillips’ partner in crime Hackett is also familiar with gaining personal accolades, as the punter earned first team all Pac-12 honors last season after leading the conference in numerous categories. Hackett set a new school record in total punting yards with 3,300, averaged 43.4 yards per punt, registered 50-plus yard punts 19 times (including a 70 yard bomb against Arizona State), and pinned opponents inside the 20 yard line 27 times. He did all of these things without ever having
a punt blocked once the entire season.

“They both are very deserving,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham. “Both had exceptional years last season, and now you have to live up to the hype.”

Whittingham knows the new year will bring new challenges and obstacles, but he believes both Phillips and Hackett are putting in the necessary work to get past the roadblocks. While some coaches would be worried about the preseason hype getting to players’ heads, Whittingham believes that both these guys are very well grounded and are focused more on working hard and getting better.

“First of all, they’re extremely intense in the weight room,” Whittingham said. “Both Tom and Andy really get after it in the weight room.”

Both of the players have something specific they are working on this summer to become more useful to the team. In Phillips’ case, he is working on kickoffs. The placekicker averaged 60.2 yards per punt while registering only 11 touchbacks. Hackett, a very good rugby-style punter, will be focusing on conventional punting.

“His main goal was to get as good at traditional punting as rugby style,” Whittingham said. “Teams won’t know whether he will be punting conventionally or rugby style.”

Phillips could not have started the 2013 season any hotter than he did, hitting every field goal he attempted in the first six games. Whittingham is hopeful for a repeat performance from him in 2014.

“He was outstanding,” Whittingham said. “He has good range, and I don’t think there is any one area of the placekicking aspect of [Phillips] that he needs to address.”

Phillips and Hackett join wide receiver Dres Anderson as the only Utes named to preseason award watchlists.

“Great guys, both [Phillips and Hackett],” Whittingham said. “Great people, hard workers, good students. They do things the right way on and off the field. I’m looking forward to working with them this fall.”

i.smith@chronicle.utah.edu