When Mitch Wishnowsky was growing up, he had never seen or held an American football. Born and raised in Gosnells, a southeastern suburb of Perth, Australia, Wishnowsky was no different than any other kid in his neighborhood: he wanted to play Australian rules football.
In Australia, there are four different codes of football – soccer, rugby league, rugby union, and Australian rules football – and the most popular one in Perth is Aussie rules, or “footy.” Wishnowsky played a lot of footy as a kid, and showed promise, but never really saw himself playing at the professional level.
At the age of 17, Wishnowsky left high school a year early in order to start work; he had been offered an apprenticeship as a glass installation specialist. Several of his friends began showing him NFL games and explaining how American football was played. On the weekend, Wishnowsky and his friends would occasionally play pickup games of American football at their local park, but their style of play was very rudimentary. They only ran a few plays and just wanted to have a good time.
Wishnowsky still played Aussie rules, too, ending up on the reserves list at the Perth Demons, a local semi-pro team in the West Australian Football League. Still, he was never quite able to draw enough attention from AFL scouts.
After a couple of years, Wishnowsky eventually grew tired of his job and began to consider exploring other professional and educational opportunities. Eventually, he caught wind about ProKick Australia, a training academy for aspiring punters run by former Aussie rules footballer/NFL punter Nathan Chapman.
Chapman’s program is well-regarded around Australia; they select numerous Aussie kids – mostly from footy backgrounds – and help them to transition into American-style punters. To date, Chapman estimates that over 60 ProKick alums have been placed at various colleges in the US. Wishnowsky contacted Chapman and was instantly sold on the idea. He committed to the program and started the long, grueling process of becoming a college football punter.
As good of a track record as ProKick had, Wishnowsky was still worried that he wouldn’t get picked up by an NCAA school right away. Still, he worked hard and soon enough, scouts began inquiring about the 6’4″, 220-pound Aussie.
Wishnowsky eventually made his way from sunny Perth to equally sunny Santa Barbara, California. He got a scholarship punting for the Santa Barbara City College Vaqueros in the fall of 2014, averaging a solid 39.8 yards per punt that year.
Eventually, Wishnowsky got the attention of coach Kyle Whittingham of the University of Utah. The Utes offered Wishnowsky a scholarship and he enrolled in January 2016 with big shoes to fill: he had to replace two-time All-American and two-time Ray Guy Award winner Tom Hackett, a fellow ProKick alum.
However, Wishnowsky brought a different set of skills to the table than Hackett did – both on and off the field.
Hackett stands only 5’10”, 180 pounds and was highly-regarded for his quick release and kicking accuracy. However, he will admit that Wishnowsky has the superior leg and athleticism:
Mitch has an uncanny ability to hit the ball much harder than most punters. His strengths do not lie with his accuracy; instead, he chooses the most direct route, high and long. I concede defeat when asked who is the stronger and more powerful punter….we have very similar, and yet very different, punting styles.
Off the field, Hackett became a media darling with his dry Aussie one-liners and tongue-in-cheek demeanor. Wishnowsky, comparatively, is a man of few words.
Upon accepting the 2016 Ray Guy Award for his efforts, Wishnowsky was asked about the amazing track record that Aussies have as college football punters. He simply replied, “You can roll out, and you can hold onto it for longer. It is changing the game of college football.”
Indeed it is. Utah made history with Wishnowsky, becoming the first school ever to have multiple Ray Guy winners. That makes it four in a row for ProKick too — Hackett won the award twice and Memphis’s Tom Hornsey won it in 2013. And as if that wasn’t enough, Wishnowsky beat out two other ProKick alums to win it all in 2016 – Cameron Johnston of Ohio State and Michael Dickson from Texas. Wishnowsky expressed congrats to his fellow countrymen and runners-up in the 2016 Ray Guy competition.
“No hard feelings. We’re all good mates,” he said with a grin.
Wishnowsky finished the season ranked second in the nation in punting, averaging 48 yards per kick, and won national punter of the week honors three times this past season. He was also named a unanimous first-team All-American.
The scary part? Wishnowsky has two years of eligibility left.
“I suppose I’ll just try to better myself next year,” Wishnowsky says. “I feel like I can get strong, maybe just show a bit more versatility. I wouldn’t mind getting a fake punt on the way at some stage.”
Hey, why not?