August Miller, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — After experiencing some highs and the lowest of lows already this month, Utah placekicker Joe Phillips is looking forward to a consistent, even-keel season like he experienced during his first year at the U.
A year ago at this time, Phillips was "cruising" through fall workouts, as he put it, as the team's No. 3 placekicker behind Ben Vroman and freshman Nick Marsh. He had walked on to the team earlier in the year after playing for Snow College and was planning to redshirt.
But due to some problems off the field for Marsh and on the field for Vroman, Phillips was thrust into the thick of the battle. He was called on to relieve Vroman during the second game of the season, against San Jose State, after the senior missed three field goal attempts.
Phillips handled the situation beautifully, making a field goal and two extra points that night, and went on to make 20-of-22 field goal attempts and 38-of-39 extra points on the season. He also broke the school record for field goals in a game by making five of five against BYU and also added three field goals and four extra points in the Utes' bowl win over Cal.
Recently, Phillips had a much tougher, unexpected challenge, one of a much more serious nature, that he had to deal with.
Just before the start of fall camp, Phillips experienced a very difficult time, along with his wife, Ashley, who was expecting their first child. At 25 weeks into the pregnancy, the baby was stillborn.
It was a very rough time for the couple, and Phillips said, "I had to get through that and get my head on straight so I could get back and be with all my brothers here. It's definitely made me stronger as a person."
"He's done a nice job rebounding," said special teams coach Jay Hill. "That's a real hard deal, obviously."
Phillips received some good news a week later, when he was officially awarded a full scholarship, something he calls "amazing." Of course, it seems a no-brainer that Phillips would be awarded a scholarship after what he accomplished last year as a walk-on.
This year, he's looking for bigger and better things.
"I'm 100 percent further along than I was last year," he said. "One huge thing has been that I know that I expect to play. I've worked a lot harder than last year. I've been able to focus better a lot on exactly what I need to work on. I've been kicking the best I've ever kicked."
Hill has noticed the difference.
"He's got a little better pop on the ball since last year and improved his technique," Hill said. "He has a little better trajectory, which is very important for a college kicker. He's got range, trajectory, consistency. He looks like a Division I kicker this year, while last year at this time, I'm not sure he really did."
Although the former Lone Peak High kicker has all the physical skills to be a great placekicker, Hill said his biggest asset is above his shoulders.
"He's a mentally tough kid, and that's always been his strength," he said.
Phillips needed that mental toughness to get through the difficult time he and his wife faced earlier this month.
Although it's hard to improve on 90.5 percent kicking, Phillips is hoping for another big season, which will have special meaning for him.
"I'm dedicating this season to my little girl," he said.
Phillips will handle all of the placekicking chores as he did for the final 111/2 games last year, although the strong-legged Marsh may handle any field goal tries from beyond 55 yards, according to Hill, as well as kickoffs.
Hill is just glad he listened when Phillips invited him to watch him kick in Snow's 2008 bowl game.
"He's a great kid," said Hill. "We're lucky to have him."
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