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His first punt of Division I football gave Utah all the confidence it needed that it had found the right man: A 51-yard boot that pinned Southern Utah at its own 10.

Mitch Wishnowsky was less sure of himself than it appeared.

"I was terrified," he said. "At first when I ran out, I got emotional, because it had been such a long time waiting. The nerves kicked in, and I was terrified. My mum watched the film, and said, 'Love, you look so angry when you're out there.' "

But since his debut in September, Wishnowsky has been brilliant for the Utes, who have picked up where they left off after graduating two-time All American Tom Hackett last season, leading the nation in punt average for the entire year (48.6 yards) and leading in net punting (45.2). And now the sophomore is following in Hackett's footsteps after being selected as one of three Ray Guy Award finalists this year. The past two years, Hackett won. If the 22-year-old sophomore can win, Utah will be the first school in award history to take it three straight years.

"I was sort of hoping for it," Wishnowsky said. "We've done quite well in punt this year. You always hope. You never know."

The Utes didn't know exactly what to expect, either.

They drew a commitment from Wishnowsky two years ago, when he was a freshman at Santa Barbara Community College. They knew he was another Australian — another protege of Nathan Chapman's Prokick that has flooded the country with punters from down under. At Santa Barbara, he had only averaged under 40 yards a punt, but they got assurances that he would be getting better.

They didn't get much more tape, however: Wishnowsky took his next year off to work on school and preserve a year of eligibility. When he arrived at Utah this winter, he hadn't punted competitively in more than a year.

"We knew he was a talent when we recruited him," Whittingham said. "But I couldn't say we knew he would do what he's done. … He's got some incredible stats. I don't know what more he could've done for us."

He's led the nation with punts of 50 or more yards (26) and punts inside the 10-yard line (14). More than 57 percent of his punts have fallen within opposing 20-yard lines, and he has only two touchbacks — both in the season opener against SUU. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Wishnowsky's frame has helped him launch punts further than Hackett, whose best year was a 48.0 average.

Whittingham said the similarities between his past two punters are remarkable: Both are laid back and don't get rattled in game situations. While Hackett was more of "a quote machine," Wishnowsky has a similar cool demeanor that served Hackett well.

On their podcast, "4th and Long," Hackett and kicker Andy Phillips talked at length about Wishnowsky, and Hackett said while he thought he was more accurate, Wishnowsky has a bigger leg.

"I think I was a bit better at putting the ball on the sideline and giving the returner not much chance, and Mitch is brute power and stronger than I am," Hackett said. "You watch him punt, it looks like he just love-taps the ball, and it flies."

From his first game, Wishnowsky reset the Utah single-game average with a 55.5 mark, causing Hackett to ask him: "You couldn't wait one game, could you?"

His work gets noticed. Wishnowsky feels a part of the program's fabric at this point.

"It's awesome: Everybody on the team and everybody in the community takes you in because special teams is a big part of Utah," he said. "Chase [Dominguez] and Andy have been good mentors, but they're going to be gone. There's going to have to be a lot of traditions, just stupid things that I'm going to have to keep up."

Some, he's subverted: The defense had a longstanding tradition of "beating up" Hackett on the nights before games. No one warned Wishnowsky, and the first few weeks of the season, he was ambushed in his hotel room.

In the third week, Phillips said on the podcast, Wishnowsky decided he would sleep naked the night before the game: "You know, since that night, I don't think they've been by. Pretty good job by Mitch."

He's heard that a lot lately.

Twitter: @kylegoon —

Wishnowsky's stellar season

• Leads the nation in punt average (48.6 yards) and net punting (45.2).

• Leads the nation with punts of 50 or more yards (26) and punts inside the 10-yard line (14).

• More than 57 percent of his punts have fallen within opposing 20-yard lines.

• Has only two touchbacks — both in the season opener against SUU.

• Set the Utah single-game record for punting average (55.5) in his first game, vs. SUU. —

No. 21 Utah at No. 9 Colorado

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