Russ Isabella / USA TODAY Sports

Utes’ Punter Wishnowsky Improving on Predecessor Tom Hackett’s Nation-Leading Legacy

Utah's special teams haven't taken a single step back since the departure of Tom Hackett, with booming punter Mitch Wishnowsky off to a hot start in Salt Lake City.

The national voting body of sports writers, college coaches, and sports information directors responsible for deciding college football’s top punter has reached the same consensus for the past two seasons: handing the Ray Guy award to Utah Ute Tom Hackett. No punter, amateur or professional, kept pace with Hackett’s per-punt average of 48 yards last season. Johnny Hecker’s career-high 47.9 yards per kick as a Ram was the closest anyone got to Hackett in 2015. Marquette King’s career-high 48.9 yard average for the Raiders in 2013 is the last time an NFL punting leader broke the 48 yard threshold. Hackett was no one-trick pony either -- his accuracy was just as good as his power, placing an NCAA-leading 45.9% of his punts inside 20 yard line last season.

Here’s two years of Hackett in 6 seconds:


Since Hackett’s graduation last Spring, the Puntiverse has found itself being governed by a new force that continued to emanate from Salt Lake City. Hackett’s successor, sophomore Mitch Wishnowsky, is off to an unprecedented, NCAA-leading 52.1 yard average on drop-kicks to start the season.

Average NCAA Punter 2015: 42.73 yards.
Average NFL Punter, 2015: 45.888 yards
Best NFL Punter, 2015: Johnny Hekker, 47.9 yards
Best NCAA Punter, 2015: Tom Hackett, 48 yards
Current NCAA Punting Leader Mitch Wishnowsky: 52.1 yards Wishnowsky wasted no time in springing from Hackett’s shadow into the limelight, earning Ray Guy Award of the Week honors in his first career start in the Utes opener against Southern Utah, averaging 55.5 yards per boot and blasting a career-long 66-yarder. Like Hackett, Wishnowsky is a product of Prokick Australia, a punter-training organization at the forefront of the ongoing Australian special teams invasion of the NCAA and NFL that boasts alumni on 6 NFL rosters and countless Division I teams.   

When the Utes and Bears met in Salt Lake City last season as the last two undefeated Pac-12 teams, field position was tilted in the Utes’ favor thanks to Hackett. Following punts, the Bears offense would on average start from its own 14, managing zero points, one interception, one fumble, one three-and out, and one turnover on downs after Utah booted it their way.

Wishnowski’s superior range does not bode well for a Cal offense that has had more difficulty producing when facing a longer field.

This year, the undefeated Utes stomped into conference play last week with a come-from-behind win against USC, where Utah stuck to a run-first game plan and out-possessed the Trojans by an excess of 15 minutes. No. 18 Utah will face the Golden Bears at home this Saturday at 3 p.m.

Wishnowsky is the rare weapon who can flip the field, and while the Bears have scored on drives that started deep in their own zone, it's more the exception than the rule. When starting from beyond their own 30 yard line this season, the Bears score on nearly 2/3 of their drives, while a majority of drives beginning on or inside the 30 end in a punt or turnover.

Vic Wharton will be the Bear responsible for receiving [and removing the pesky space dust from] Wishnowsky’s moon shots. Wharton returns to the active roster after missing Cal’s last two tilts against Texas and ASU, relieving senior Bug Rivera of his interim punt returning duties. Rivera and Wharton have combined for two yards on six punt returns through the season’s first four games, stumbling to a conference-worst 0.33 yards per carry.

Special Teams Coordinator Mark Tommerdahl sees catches, not yardage as his punt returners’ primary responsibility.

“With the way we’re playing on offense right now,” Tommerdahl said, “if we can gain possession for our offense, mission accomplished.”

Tommerdahl stated that he will continue to explore other options for both kick and punt returns as the team’s younger talent gains more experience.

“Hopefully as the year goes on we’ll see more and more guys back there," Tommerdahl said. "We’ve got guys like Demetris Robertson, Melquise Stovall, who’ve just got to get more comfortable standing underneath that ball.”

After taking a kick out of the end zone last week -- from nearly the back line -- Robertson knows he has a bit to learn about the return game, which can only complement his natural speed and athleticism.

"Coach Tommerdahl is teaching me really well. Every game, I'm starting to feel it out a little bit more," Robertson said. "Really, they told me to be smart about it. I got a little anxious. I really wanted to take it out, but it's just being smart." Top Stories