SALT LAKE CITY — In the first game of the 2017 season, Utah kicker Chayden Johnston missed a 45-yard field goal attempt. For the next kick, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham brought on Matt Gay, who would go on to be the starting kicker for the rest of the season and next, winning the Lou Groza Award in 2017.
Now, Johnston is getting another chance to be the Utes' starting kicker.
“I wouldn’t say a fresh start,” Johnston said. “I’m building, definitely, upon that. I learned from it, got more mature since then, physically. I’ve gotten a lot stronger. I wouldn’t say I’m taking a fresh start, but I’m using it as a learning opportunity.”
As the Utes resume spring practice next week, Johnston is the No. 1 kicker on the spring depth chart.
Johnston says he doesn’t feel any pressure following Gay’s stellar career.
“I don’t think Matt would want there to be pressure. We both knew where I was at and I feel pretty comfortable right now. I wouldn’t say there’s pressure, but I’m excited to be able to get out there and play,” Johnston said.
Johnston learned a lot both from working with Gay at practice and from his friendship with him.
“It was wonderful working with Matt,” Johnston said. “He was very good, he just had naturally raw talent and just stayed calm and collected. He was a good friend. I miss him quite a bit, and it was fun to work with him.”
Johnston excelled at Bingham High, winning two state championships with the Miners and being named to the 2014 Deseret News All-State first team before leaving on a two-year church mission to Minnesota.
His coaches love what they see in him as he gears up to battle for the starting job.
“I love Chayden, I love the pop off the ball. For his size, he has a tremendous amount of power that he generates, co-special teams coordinator Sharrieff Shah said. “The angle with which he attacks the ball, the instant trajectory that he can place on the ball. When necessary, he kicks a more penetrating ball. Just a really good kicker.”
Whittingham says that both Johnston and new punter Ben Lennon have “a lot of potential,” but, as is always the case during spring football, there are still a lot of kinks to work out.
"When you have a new holder and a new kicker, it takes a little bit of time to get that chemistry down,” Whittingham said. "So right now, we’re not real smooth in the operation of snap, to hold, to kick, but as far as the raw ability and the talent, it’s there.”
As for what Johnston will do on his first kick of the 2019 season?
“Just clear your head and just already know it’s going in,” Johnston said.
Lennon is the latest in a line of Australian punters for Utah. Both Tom Hackett and Mitch Wishnowsky won the Ray Guy Award during their time at the U.
Lennon, from Viewbank, Australia, near Melbourne, already has a rapport with Hackett, with whom he lived with after arriving to the States.
“I lived with Tom Hackett for the first two weeks. We’re both from Melbourne, Australia, so we had a little bit of a background,” Lennon said. “He was able to kindly help me out and introduce me to the place. I got a feel for it pretty quick, which is good.”
One of the things Lennon gleaned from Hackett was what made Utah fans fall in love with him — his laid-back nature and sense of humor.
“His laid-back nature, he didn’t take anything too serious,” Lennon said. “He had sort of a clean mind and he just played every ball on its merit, so that’s something that I’ve took out from living with him for two weeks. I’ll continue to work with him and he’ll be a good sounding board for me.”
Lennon is a product of the same program that produced Hackett and Wishnowsky: Prokick Australia. Prior to trying his hand at American football, Lennon played a different kind of football — playing professional Australian rules football after being drafted in the first round of the Australian Football League. Lennon played 21 games for Richmond, but was plagued by injuries.2 comments on this story
“It was really good. I learned a lot of values and good lessons and stuff like that, which will hold me in good stead over here. It wasn’t all smooth sailing over there, so I think I’ll be able to reach upon those experiences and it’ll hold me in really good stead,” Lennon said of his time in the AFL.
Lennon is known for his pinpoint placement while punting the ball. Lennon says that he does the Australian-style roll-out punt.
“Ben, I’m excited for. He doesn’t have the strength that Mitch had, but he is deadly accurate — really, really good with regard to placing the ball. A lot of the things that we do in our scheme requires placing the ball in certain zones, so I’m excited about Ben and his placement; he’ll only get better and better,” Shah said.