I would love to represent BYU. If football is the way that I can do it as well, I’ll do that also. —Jonny Linehan
PROVO — When BYU special teams coach Kelly Poppinga addressed the punter position during spring practices, he disclosed that there would be “surprises at that position that will be game-changing.”
But Poppinga would not elaborate any further.
Neither would coach Bronco Mendenhall, who simply said there would be “mystery and intrigue” at the punting spot until fall camp.
Well, the mystery and intrigue might be over.
Earlier this month, prior to BYU’s 30-27 rugby national championship victory over Cal, Cougar Jonny Linehan — affectionately known as “Jonny Rugby” around campus — was asked if he would be giving college football a try in the future.
“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “If I can make it through this match without being put in a wheelchair, yeah, over the summer we’ll work on that. I would love to represent BYU. If football is the way that I can do it as well, I’ll do that also.”
What position would he play?
Punter, he said.
Linehan, a native of Auckland, New Zealand, said he would likely do rugby-style punting similar to Utah’s Tom Hackett, who hails from Australia.
“That’s what would be easiest for me,” Linehan said. “But I can do traditional spiral punts, it’s just getting consistent.”
Linehan pointed out that there are many more opportunities to kick in rugby than in football. He understands that in football, each punt is crucial.
As a rugby player, Linehan has reached almost legendary status at BYU. When he was a freshman in 2013, having arrived on campus just months before, Linehan executed an improvisational game-winning drop kick as time expired to lift BYU to a dramatic 27-24 victory over Cal for the rugby national championship.
Then last Saturday, Linehan came up big again in the championship match. In the second half, he recorded a perfectly executed, long-distance foot pass to Jared Whippy for a try that gave the Cougars a 27-15 advantage. It marked BYU’s fourth consecutive national title.
Linehan booted the ball high in the air, and Whippy jumped up and caught the ball over a Cal defender.
While Linehan has never played college football, he’s not a complete stranger to the sport. One of Linehan’s best friends was a missionary companion of BYU quarterback Taysom Hill when Hill served in Australia.
Two years ago during fall camp, Linehan joined the football team in fall camp as a cornerback after the Cougars were decimated by injuries in the defensive backfield.
Linehan was with the team for two weeks, trying to defend wide receivers like 6-foot-6 Mitch Mathews.
“It was pretty cool to have my first football training with a Division I school with a pretty good football team and I had never put on a football helmet before,” he has said. “So it was a pretty humbling experience and one I’ll never forget. It was hard for me to grasp. I just tried to keep the receivers in front of me. If they made the first down, it was all right — as long as they didn’t get a touchdown. I was terrible, but it was a fun experience. It’s a big commitment if you’re not on scholarship.”
Of course Linehan isn’t the only BYU rugby player to join the football team. Running backs Paul Lasike and Joshua Whippy both have been part of the program.
BYU rugby coach David Smyth is supportive of his players joining the football team — if it’s the right fit.
“There’s more opportunity in this country with football than there is with rugby. So from a career path and an opportunity to provide for a family, yeah,” he said. “We have a good relationship with the football team. In the fall, they’re pretty much with (the football team), and in the winter they come back here. We work together. It’s tough on the kids. I’m a fan as long as the kid is keeping up with his academics. We’ve got to keep a close eye on that. If they can do both sports, which is very difficult, I’m all for it.”
What’s the draw to football for rugby players?
“It’s kind of like what rugby is to a lot of American kids. It’s new, it’s exciting, it’s something they’ve never done, it’s a new challenge,” Linehan said. “For me, seeing how big football is in the (United) States, more especially at BYU, and how nuts they are about football, I think it’s awesome. It’s neat to be able to play rugby. If you can play both, I feel like you should try to play both. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to have a shot so why not grab it with two horns and just go for it. It’s exciting because it’s new and something you’ve never done, and it’s something people are crazy about. It’s cool to see if you can be the best at something that you’ve never tried before.”
So, maybe BYU has its punter position filled. Or maybe Jonny Rugby will try another position.
“They might want a rugby-style quarterback,” Linehan joked.