I feel confident in my ability and I’m happy I got this opportunity. There’s been some nerves, but I’m confident to do my job and put it through the uprights —Matt Gay
SALT LAKE CITY — A year ago at this time, Matt Gay was playing collegiate soccer in relative obscurity for the Utah Valley University soccer team.
Today he’s kicking field goals and extra points for the University of Utah football team and making his mark on a national stage. After just two games, he’s leading the nation in three different placekicking categories — he’s tied for first in field goals made (7), field goals per game (3.5) and percentage (100, after going 7 for 7 through Utah's first two games).
It’s a storybook tale — a guy who grew up playing soccer and played only one season of high school football. A guy who played collegiate soccer for two years only to give it up to try out for a major-college football team, then, after making the team, go into the season as the backup kicker only to win the job in his first game and then rise to the top of the nation after just two weeks on the job.
The story is similar to that of his predecessor, Andy Phillips, who had very little kicking experience after being a national-class ski racer, but tried out for the Ute team and beat out more experienced kickers for the starting job. Like Phillips, Gay made all three of his field goal tries in his first college game and now he hopes to match Phillips’ 84-percent career field-goal percentage, even if he may be in the first year of his college career.
“I feel confident in my ability and I’m happy I got this opportunity,” says Gay. “There’s been some nerves, but I’m confident to do my job and put it through the uprights.”
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham had watched Gay challenge freshman Chayden Johnston, a celebrated high school kicker for Bingham High who recently returned from an LDS Church mission, throughout fall camp. He said Johnston edged ahead in the final week, but after Johnston missed his first field goal try against North Dakota, Gay was given the chance.
“He’s been perfect,” said Whittingham. “We saw some very good consistency through camp and he’s proved to be very cool under pressure. Nothing seems to bother him, which is a great trait in a kicker.”
It may be hard to believe someone with such little experience has done so well as a collegiate kicker. One person who’s not surprised is Gay’s former soccer coach at Utah Valley, Greg Maas.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Maas said. “He’s a very committed and determined young man. He showed that propensity on the soccer field and that’s carried over on the football field. He’s just knocking the ball through a different goal. I’m very proud of him.”
Maas said he’s known Gay since he was 10 years old when he played club soccer and when he was part of an Olympic development program.
“He was something of a prodigy here in Utah,” Maas said. “He’s a very strong, powerful player that can strike the ball like no other player that I’ve had a chance to coach.”
After graduating from Orem High, where he booted a 54-yard field goal as a senior, Gay didn’t go to school for a year. When Maas got the job to start the Utah Valley soccer team from scratch, he recruited Gay, who had to sit out the 2013-14 season with others as a redshirt.
As a freshman, Gay led the team in scoring with seven goals and five assists and was named all-WAC and all-Western region. Then Gay went on an LDS mission to Houston that was cut short for medical reasons. But after returning, he had a difficult time getting his fitness back and was not seeing as much action for the Wolverines, starting just one of 15 games in 2016.
Following the season, he had a heart-to-heart talk with Maas, who basically told him he needed to be committed and that UVU would provide every resource to help him get his game back again.
“I could tell he was frustrated because he wasn’t getting back to his level as quickly as he had hoped,” Maas said. “We were working on and off the field to get him with a fitness and nutrition program. It was challenging, no question.”
But a couple of weeks later Gay told his coach he had decided to step away from soccer so he could give football a go.
“Things weren’t going my way,” Gay said. “People approached me (about placekicking) so I decided to step away and pursue my options in football and this opportunity came along."
While Maas was disappointed, he was supportive of Gay’s decision, saying, “I’m a huge Matt Gay fan, not only as an athlete but as a young man in our community. He’s a fantastic kid.”
Maas isn’t the only big fan of the Ute kicker. Gay says he’s had numerous calls and texts over the past couple of weeks, “a lot of people reaching out to me,” even folks who had no idea that he was the Ute placekicker until they saw it on the news or read it in the newspaper.
His biggest fans are his former teammates at UVU, who watched every minute of Saturday’s Utah-BYU game from San Diego where they had a game.
“We had an off evening and we talked about dinner options and it was a unanimous vote that we needed to order dinner in so we could watch the game together,” said Maas. “They couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel to watch that game. We were there from the kickoff cheering him on.”
Gay may have only one year at Utah (he’s going to petition to the NCAA after the season to try to get a year back) and from there he may look to a pro career. He’s been kidded about being a “mini-Janikowski” (Gay is 6-1, 220; Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski is 6-1, 260) and Maas wouldn't be surprised, saying “he’s got an incredibly powerful leg.”
Gay says his range is 60 yards and he’s hit from even longer in practice.
“If that (pro) opportunity comes along I’d love to take it,” says Gay. “But right now I’m focused on what I’m doing here.”