This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Las Vegas • The performance of Utah's offense in 2015 has been unsatisfying to many observers. Personally, I wanted more punts.
Statistics aside, no punter ever has been more fun to watch than Utah senior Tom Hackett, who will conclude his college career in Saturday's Las Vegas Bowl vs. BYU. Fourth down will never be the same at Rice-Eccles Stadium, without Utah's consensus All-American, two-time Ray Guy Award winner and the punter of the Pac-12's All-Century Team.
And that's not even factoring in the Australian's interesting interviews.
Hackett has made punting part of the entertainment value of Utah football. I enjoyed watching Texas A&M's Shane Lechler in the 1990s, and he has produced a long, successful NFL career. Yet Hackett's rugby-style technique more about that, in a moment and his knack for pinning the ball along the sideline have elevated the art for me.
He has made fourth down fun, that's for sure. After a season opener when Utah State and Southern Utah punted a combined 29 times, I said I would have loved to watch that game but only if Hackett had punted for both teams. So my biggest complaint about Utah's 2015 showing is a lack of punting. Hackett has punted 55 times through 12 games this season; he had 80 punts in 13 games last year.
Utah's offensive statistics are roughly the same each year, so the only explanation is that the Utes and their opponents have played at a slower tempo and kept the ball longer on each drive, reducing the number of possessions. Hackett has been as effective as ever, averaging 47.8 yards, with nearly half of his punts being downed inside the 20-yard line.
The Utes lead the FBS in net punting at 43.6 yards, which is the part coach Kyle Whittingham likes best. Opponents have totaled only 66 punt-return yards all season, partly attributable to rugby-style punting that disrupts the return scheme. Hackett came into the season hoping to punt conventionally more often, as an audition for pro football.
"I probably would have liked a few more base punts, just to see what I'm made of NFL-wise," he said. "But it's not for me to decide. Whenever I tell [Whittingham] that I want to do more base punts, his answer is that we'll do what's best for the team, and that kind of shuts me up there and then."
Hackett was honored during the Pac-12 championship game as the youngest member of the conference's All-Century Team, which featured the likes of Stanford's John Elway and USC's Ronnie Lott. That was a remarkable honor for any Utah player, considering the Utes have belonged to the conference for five years.
Having grown up in Australia with little awareness of American football until he began looking at colleges, Hackett was less in awe of some of the conference's legendary players than the average person. "A lot of people would love to be in my shoes," he said, reviewing the weekend. "Unfortunately, it wasn't all that big of a deal to me."
He did appreciate the honor, which he labeled "kind of mind-blowing." And he has become much more of an American football fan, watching NFL telecasts with his roommates and playing fantasy football, although his team is "horrible," he said.
In any case, Hackett will have NFL opportunities of his own in 2016. His Utah career will end the way it started, with a matchup against BYU. Hackett made his debut vs. BYU in the third game of the 2012 season, specializing in short punts. Three punts were downed inside the 10-yard line that night, making Hackett the Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week.
Many more honors would follow, and Hackett would be allowed to expand his game as the full-time punter as his career developed. I'll miss him, as someone who's unhappy that Utah's offense performed so well in 2015.