I moved away from my family and I was working in a gin pub until late at night and waking up early to go train. Everyone on a football team works hard, but I like to think it's a lot of work, to be honest. —Mitch Wishnowsky
SALT LAKE CITY — It wasn’t a mob thing, but Kyle Whittingham made it sound that way.
“I know a guy ” he said.
A guy who can put you in touch with someone with a special skill set, and the problem is solved. Spoiler alert: This is not an episode of “The Sopranos.” It’s about Utah going into Wednesday’s Foster Farms Bowl with the top punter in America.
This is where it gets weird: The punter is this year’s Ray Guy Award winner, Mitch Wishnowsky.
A guy sends Whittingham a guy, who wins The Guy.
Which is where this Australian-American story begins.
* * *
Tom Hackett arrived at Utah in 2012, straight from Melbourne, and immediately became a media star. Which made it strange he didn’t respond to a request for an interview this week. Normally Hackett is a walking laugh track. He called BYU players a curse word during the buildup to last year’s Las Vegas Bowl. He told ESPN the main reason he was playing American football was “because I’m fat and I don’t like running very far.”
He labeled punting “a hobby for me” and said his job was “kicking bacon (pigskin)” downfield.
Oh, and he won Guy awards as college football’s best punter in 2014 and 2015. That led Whittingham back to the source, Pro Kick Australia, a laboratory for Australian rules football players transitioning to the American game.
“I’ve got a guy down there that’s phenomenal,” Whittingham said.
Nathan Chapman and John Smith — having played professionally in both the Australian and National football leagues — delivered both Hackett and Wishnowsky, to Utah.
Is Whittingham the best recruiter of Australian talent in history?
“I’m two-for-two,” Whittingham said. “I know that.”
* * *
They almost all know each other. Players start at Pro Kick and move to the States, Land of Opportunity.
All of them grew up playing a blend of rugby and American football, in which players move the ball by punting on the run and kicking through uprights. Curiously, “footy” teams are mostly located in and around Melbourne. The rest of the country leans toward cricket and rugby.
Versatility, leg strength and placement make Australian players candidates for the American game.
Wishnowsky was second nationally this year in average punt distance (48 yards), and first in punts of 50-plus yards, as well as first in those inside the 20 and 10. He launched kicks of 60-plus yards three times.
Distance, hang time and accuracy are the golden combination.
“It’s sort of second nature for us to kick the ball, but it’s not just that,” Wishnowsky said. “I moved away from my family and I was working in a gin pub until late at night and waking up early to go train. Everyone on a football team works hard, but I like to think it’s a lot of work, to be honest.”
It’s also a lot of Australian ingenuity. This year’s RGA finalists were all Australian, the other two being Cameron Johnston of Ohio State and Michael Dickson of Texas. Another Aussie, Memphis’ Tom Hornsey, won the award in 2013.
Kicking is a way of life for Melbournians.
“It’s all we do,” current New York Giants punter Brad Wing said in 2011.
Indiana likely won’t be shocked, in Wednesday’s bowl game, by Wishnowsky’s talent. Besides Johnston, Big Ten opponent Penn State has Australian punter Daniel Pasquariello. Dozens of others have played at American colleges.
“They like to think they’re taking over,” Wishnowsky said.
Likewise, the NFL has featured players such as Hornsey, Matt McBriar and Jordan Berry.
The influx hasn’t been reciprocated, though Wishnowsky does say former teammate Travis Wilson is “apparently going over there for a trial with an AFL team because of his height and athleticism.” But since the Aussie game doesn’t involve passing, the crossover skills aren’t comparable.
“We assimilate well into the punt game because that’s what we do in Aussie rules football, but you can’t throw the ball,” Wishnowsky said.
The Ute punter says he’s thrilled to win college football’s most prestigious punting award, but will leave the cheeky quotes to Hackett.
“That’s not my thing,” Wishnowsky said. “I’ll leave that to Tommy.”
But the punting?
He’s now the guy.
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