Andy Phillips' kicking career got off to a great start with three field goals in his debut game. (Rick Bowmer/AP)
There are currently 125 starting kickers in the football bowl subdivision of college football. Unless someone else has been hiding it really well, only one was an Olympic-quality skier.
Redshirt freshman walk-on Andy Phillips joined the Utah football team in 2012 having spent his entire life up to that point training for the Winter Olympics. He was on track to do just that; at 17, Phillips was the No. 2 junior Slalom skier in the world.
At 19, Phillips went on his Mormon mission trip. Due to financial problems in the U.S. ski team, those on the team would have to cover their expenses to get to Sochi in 2014, and Phillips was forced to leave the team and give up on his dream.
Phillips' experience in kicking was limited to soccer and the time he spent practicing at a local field. One day he and his brother decided to see who could kick the furthest field goal. Left with that competitive hole of something to work for that for so long had been filled with skiing, Phillips found kicking was a natural fit even though he had never played a snap of competitive football. With no more Olympic dreams, his new goal became to make it on a football team.
Phillips sent his tape around to a couple of local programs. Naturally as a local kid in Utah, he was in contact with the Utes, primarily special teams coach Jay Hill. Hill was reluctant at first to bring Phillips on, but every time Phillips would send tape into Hill, the kicks got a little bit better.
“He’d contacted me and said he had played soccer but had interest in kicking,” Hill said. “I said, ‘What’s your experience kicking footballs?’ and he said ‘Well, I really don’t have any.’ I told him, 'Here’s the deal, you have to put together a film and show me basically you have the ability for us to bring you on.' He did, and he sent it off. He’d follow up with a phone call and ask me what I thought. I’d give him my thoughts, and he’d put together another film. After awhile, what had happened was he started to get better and better, and I saw that progression on his films.”
Eventually, his form and his skill level were good enough to bring him into camp.
Phillips took his first season to learn kicking and what it was like to play football. He immediately took to the weight room, where the focus and drive that got him so far as a competitive skier showed through. He takes lifting as seriously as he takes kicking, often lifting with the running backs in morning sessions. While some kickers shy away from contact, no defensive lineman can hit Phillips any harder than the ground has when making jumps on a slope.
After countless bumps, bruises and broken bones, football hits seem tame by comparison. Phillips' physical gifts translate to the football field. The mental preparation and countless hours practicing and perfecting technique are just as important in kicking as they are in downhill skiing.
When Utah broke camp this year, Phillips had improved enough to earn coach Kyle Whittingham's confidence to name him the starter.
“When he first got to us, he was very raw but had a strong leg,” Whittingham said. “Ever since he joined the program, he just kept getting better and better to the point where this fall he really separated himself from the rest of the kickers. It became very apparent that he was the guy who was going to be doing the placekicking for us.”
The learning curve would be steep, as Utah was playing rival Utah State on the opening Thursday night of the college football season. Phillips converted his first two kicks, extra points on the Utes’ first two touchdown drives. In the third quarter, with 2:33 to play, he made his first field goal, a 45-yarder to cut the Utah State lead to 23-17.
On the ensuing kickoff, he successfully executed an sneaky onside kick, faking that he was going to boot the ball deep before hitting a 10-yard grounder. After recovering the kick, the Utes scored on that possession, with Phillips giving the team the go-ahead extra point.
“It’s not the easiest thing to do,” Whittingham said of the onside kick. “It looked easy, but it’s not. You’ve got to sell the approach as if you’re going to kick it deep and at the last second hit the breaks and dribble. We call it ‘middle dribble.’ And he executed it perfectly. For a kid that’s never been in a game at any level to execute that onside, to me, that’s pretty impressive.”
He would convert two more field goals in that game, finishing 3-of-3 on field goals and 3-of-3 on extra points in his first collegiate game – a win over Utah State.
Through Week 5, Phillips still hasn’t missed. That’s 21 extra points and seven field goals for a player who had never taken a snap in a game that officially counted until this season. Phillips credits his work ethic to his skiing, where milliseconds on a run and millimeters of an angle could be the difference between winning and losing.
“He’s still honing in on that exactness and technique,” Hill said. “But it’s something he’s progressed very well at. He’s almost at the point now where you don’t want to overthink the technique. You just want to put the ball through the uprights. The biggest thing is doing it. You don’t want to be that one-hit wonder, and I don’t think he will be because it’s important to him. He just needs to keep doing what he’s doing.”
The team has taken to him too, putting to rest the lonesome kicker narrative. Phillips has become good friends with players like junior tight end Jake Murphy, the son of seven-time MLB All-Star Dale Murphy. Both players are married and their wives had gotten close, and the two can bond over married life and football.
Murphy said Phillips tries random things out and just ends up being good at them. As a natural athlete, he picks up nuances of games really quickly, and he is supposedly the best golfer on the team. He gets along well with every player, Murphy adds, and is just outgoing by nature.
“That confidence the team has in me really helped push me to be more consistent and just have a positive mentality,” Phillips said. “You go to the locker room or the sidelines after making a big kick and to have that camaraderie is awesome. It brings a whole new energy you don’t really get in the sport of ski racing. “
Utah enters its Thursday night game with UCLA at 3-1 for the first time since joining the Pac-12, with the lone loss coming in overtime to Oregon State on Sept. 14. The Utes already have wins over rivals Utah State and BYU and are looking for another signature win at home over the heavily favored Bruins.
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Every coach emphasizes special teams. But with the “college kickers” theme still haunting teams all over the country, it has to put Whittingham at ease knowing he has a steady leg who likely hasn’t reached his ceiling yet as a redshirt freshman.
“I’m so new to it that I don’t really know what goals to set,” Phillips said. “Obviously I want to be perfect this season. It’s not realistic, but it’s something that I’ve kind of set for myself every game.”
It’s a lofty goal, sure, but a third of the way through the season, this converted skier is well on his way.
And if Phillips gets through the year perfect, he’ll probably celebrate on the slopes, where he could teach his coach a thing or two. Whittingham said he and Phillips talk skiing all the time and that he’s a great resource for tips.
“We talk about skis and runs and snow,” Phillips said. “There were a couple times during spring ball there’d be half a foot of snow in the stadium, and we’d say, ‘It’d be a good ski day after practice.’ I am looking forward to it, and I hope he’ll let me go skiing with him this winter.”
Utah can’t keep Phillips from skiing, but if the start to this season is any indication, it looks like it's going to be hard to keep him away from the football field, too.