SALT LAKE CITY — The temperature was in the high 80s last week, but storm clouds were in the distance. At least it seemed that way to Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham.
A long forgotten problem had returned.
It has been more than half a decade since the Utes really needed to worry about placekicking, but here comes the season, and Whittingham still hasn't named a starter. A week ago, he said he might have to do the kicking himself. He later modified his stance, saying he felt better about the situation. Still, he couldn't be blamed for shuddering. He has seen the enemy, and its name is Inconsistency.
The Utes open the season Thursday against Montana State, unsure just how safe their placekicking will be. That became obvious when the issue arose during two-a-days. Whittingham is saying it's a game-time decision whether he will use junior Coleman Petersen or sophomore Nick Marsh as his starter. One thing is clear: Neither player has so far made a great case. Whittingham has summoned every resource he can imagine — including psychologists — to get his kickers focused.
"We're pulling out all the stops now; we're working them up with different guys, trying to build confidence," he said. "And I think it's working a bit."
Does that sound like a vote of confidence to you?
The Utes haven't needed to worry much about placekicking in recent years. The job belonged to walk-on Joe Phillips the last two seasons. At one point, Phillips made a school-record 18 consecutive field goals. He debuted in 2009 after starter Ben Vroman missed three kicks against San Jose State. Before that it was Louie Sakoda, a consensus All-America.
In 2004, the year of Utah's first BCS bowl, the Utes only tried seven field goals, making them all. So it has been a considerable time since they needed to worry about it.
"We were spoiled with great kicking for a lot of years," Whittingham said. "Maybe that will be the case this year, we don't know. You don't know how a player's going to react in a game until you put him in and see what he does."
Whittingham said if the placekicking is shaky, he'll go for it on fourth down more often than usual.
Certainly there have been good times for Utah kickers. For instance, 1987, when Scott Lieber made a last-second kick to lead the Utes over Wisconsin. And the time Chris Yergensen made a long field goal to beat BYU in 1993. Andre Guardi was an outstanding kicker for the Utes in the early 1980s. Marv Bateman made a 59-yard kick in 1971.
But there were lowlights, too, such as 1992, when Yergensen missed a 20-yard try in the Copper Bowl, costing the Utes a win. Golden Whetman missed 3-of-4 tries in a loss to Arizona in 2000. Bryan Borreson made only 2-of-7 field goals beyond 30 yards in 2002, but later settled down.
The most glaring miss in Ute history may have been by Ryan Kaneshiro against BYU at game's end in 1998. That same season, he missed a 35-yard field goal with the score tied in regulation against San Diego State, plus an extra point in the overtime loss.
Back then Utah's head coach was Ron McBride, who sometimes covered his eyes when his kicker entered the game. The superstitious McBride wore certain clothes and followed certain routines in hopes of bringing luck.
"We had a run of pretty woeful kicking for a lot of years," Whittingham said, noting that McBride imported "magic sand" for players to walk on. Theoretically they would absorb the good fortune through the soles of their feet.
McBride also dressed as a witch doctor at practice to ward off bad vibes.
Now another season is here and Whittingham is wondering whether his luck will hold. On Friday, Marsh said he had improved his mechanics and was mentally in a good place.
"I can kick big field goals," Marsh said, claiming he can make them from over 60 yards. "It's just in my head; I've got to work it out and I feel I'm getting it done. I feel comfortable now."
Marsh added that he doesn't want to fill the shoes of Sakoda.
"I don't actually want to be Louie Sakoda; I want to make a name for myself," he said. "I don't want to be the guy who fills his shoes, I want to have my foot plastered into a trophy. I want to be bigger and better than Louie. That's tough to do, but I might as well shoot for the stars."
If things go well this year, no harm done; it was only needless worry on Whittingham's part. But if things go south, Whittingham will need to order some magic sand of his own. And just like McBride, he'll want to avert his gaze whenever a kick goes up.