Matt Gay walked on to the University of Utah football team in 2017, hoping to turn his talents as a college soccer player into a spot as the Utes' placekicker. Not only did he win that job, but by the end of the season he was in possession of the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top collegiate player. And 16 months later, Gay is an NFL draft pick.
On Friday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used their fifth-round pick, number 145 overall, to select Gay, the first kicker taken in the 2019 NFL Draft. Gay joins a roster that also includes the Buccaneers' incumbent kicker, Cairo Santos, and former German Football League kicker Phillip Andersen, but the rookie obviously knows a few things about thriving under pressure.
"[General Manager] Jason [Licht] said it last night with the DBs: 'Competition is a beautiful thing,'" said Buccaneers Director of Player Personnel John Spytek. "I think the idea of this draft, really, with Coach Arians and his new staff is, there's no job promised to anybody right now. Coach says it to us all the time, there's no job promised to anybody. There are no starters right now. You want a job, show up and compete."
Gay was outstanding for two seasons as the Utes' kicker, making 56 of his 65 field goal attempts (86.2%) and all 85 of his extra point tries. That includes eight successful kicks in 11 tries from 50 yards or further, and he has shown he can succeed in tough environments.
"He's got a strong leg," said Spytek. "Our area scout, Tony Kinkela, just brought up that he made two 50-yard field goals in Colorado in the snow. It's definitely an added bonus when you have a kicker who's kicked in some adverse conditions, like Utah and around the Pac 12. He has a soccer background, so he's a little bit unique that way, but sometimes those guys are very good at kicking balls."
Gay also forced touchbacks on 58 of his 82 kickoff attempts, but there's a good chance he'll get to concentrate solely on placekicking with the Buccaneers, should he win that job. The Buccaneers signed former San Francisco 49ers punter Bradley Pinion in free agency and intend to let him handle kickoffs, as he has done extremely well in his career.
"If you've got a punter that's already good at it and the kicker can just focus on field goals, sometimes that's good for everybody," said Spytek.
The selection of Gay marked the first time that the Buccaneers strayed from the defensive side of the ball in the 2019 draft. They used their first five picks (including two third-rounders) on linebacker Devin Bush, cornerbacks Sean Bunting and Jamel Dean, safety Mike Edwards and defensive end Anthony Nelson. Tampa Bay has two picks remaining, number 208 late in the sixth round and the first pick of the seventh round, number 215.
This is the seventh time in team history that the Buccaneers have selected a kicker in the draft. The most recent such effort, Florida State's Roberto Aguayo in 2016, did not produce the desired long-term solution for a position that has troubled the team in recent years. However, the 1985 selection of Donald Igwebuike in the eighth round and the 1999 choice of Martin Gramatica in the third round produced two of the franchises top five leaders in career field goals.