Former US ski team member Andy Phillips once skied off a cliff and snapped his femur in half. So kicking a football is easy.
The 24-year-old redshirt freshman had never played in a football game at any level when he nailed three field goals in Utah’s season-opening 30-26 victory over rival Utah State. He also went 3 for 3 on extra points.
”We didn’t get the opening kickoff as I hoped we would to get it out of the way,” he said. ”I was definitely nervous. My first kick was a PAT, so I was just thinking, `Get this thing through.”’
In total, Phillips has gone 5 for 5 and ranks 20th nationally with 1.7 field goals per game. He’s got a pair of field goals over 40 yards.
Additionally, he’s made all 19 of his point-after kicks to lead the Pac-12. He set a school record with 10 PATs against Weber State in Utah’s second game of the season, a 70-7 rout.
He’s had 17 kickoffs averaging 62.8 yards. He also had an onside kick that led to a touchdown against Utah State.
”Ever since he’s gotten here he’s gotten nothing but better, and worked himself into the starting placekicker roll this fall,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. ”He’s been exceptional. We couldn’t be more pleased with what he’s done. He’s been a big plus for our team.”
Those first-kick jitters that Phillips had quickly faded.
”After I experienced the dynamic of being out on the field, with having another team besides my own rushing at me, and having the fans behind me, I couldn’t have felt more comfortable in that stadium – which is cool because I didn’t expect my nerves to die down that much,” he said
It has been an unusual journey for Phillips, who was a prodigy growing up in Utah and went to the Winter Sports School in Park City. He was named to the US team, but took time off for a religious mission. After he rejoined the team, funding started to dry up because of the economic downturn.
A natural athlete, one day he and his brother were at a local high school kicking field goals.
”I thought, `Hey, maybe I could make something of this,”’ Phillips said.
He resolved to play on a Pac-12 football team so he put some film together and the next thing he knew he was a walk-on for the Utes, tutored by former Utah kicker Joe Phillips.
He said he ”literally kicked hundreds of balls a day,” and did strength training. Then this past summer he attended a camp in Arizona run by Gary Zauner, a former NFL special teams coach.
Kickers have a reputation at times of being introverts. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound Phillips doesn’t think it’s much different from being an Alpine skier.
”Skiing is such an individual sport. A lot of people say kicking is extremely individual as well because you get called on, you kick and do your job,” he said. ”But the team aspect is just unbelievable to me. And my teammates have been great with their support.”
As a skier, Phillips was an up-and-comer with a pair of third-place finishes at Nor-Am Cup races in 2007 and 2010. He finished fifth in the slalom at the 2007 World Junior Championship.
Phillips said he hasn’t abandoned the sport and still skis every chance he gets.
”Kicking is different. I still get the same rush, and I definitely like the team dynamic a lot more,” he said. ”Obviously, there’s a lot more interest when it comes to football in the United States than there is for ski racing, so that’s a lot of fun.”
Utah (2-1, 0-1 Pac-12) faces in-state rival BYU (1-1) on Saturday night at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
The Utes are coming off a disappointing 51-48 overtime loss to Oregon State. Phillips’ 41-yard field goal in overtime put the Utes up 48-45, but the Beavers responded with a 6-yard touchdown pass from Sean Mannion to Brandin Cooks to win it.
As for skiing off a cliff, Phillips did it when he was a ”crazy teenager.” For a long time he had a steel rod in his leg to hold his femur together.
He jokes that he doesn’t think there’s a bone in his body that he hasn’t broken. He still has 16 screws in one of his hands and a couple of steel plates from injuries.
So football is a piece of cake, right?
”It’s different. I played a little bit on the scout team last year and got hit a couple of times. It’s definitely jarring on your body,” he said. ”But at the same time, especially with the giant slalom, you can take a lot of impact in different ways. In their own way, slalom and giant slalom are huge contact sports. So yeah, it’s been a nice transition.”