Have the Bucs finally found their kicker in Matt Gay?

Two years ago the Bucs were choosing between Roberto Aguayo and Nick Folk, while the potential answer to their perennial kicking woes was serving steak at a Texas Roadhouse.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Matt Gay (9) watches his field goal during the second quarter of the preseason game against the Miami Dolphins on August 16, 2019 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Matt Gay (9) watches his field goal during the second quarter of the preseason game against the Miami Dolphins on August 16, 2019 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published Aug. 17, 2019|Updated Aug. 17, 2019

TAMPA — The early dining menu offers 11 entrees for $9.49 at the Texas Roadhouse on South State Street in Orem, Utah.

Jake Hasler was eating there the other night and remembered how his friend waited tables at the steak restaurant before finding a better job.

Bucs rookie kicker Matt Gay read the text from Hasler and smiled.

“To think that two years ago, I was working there and trying to figure out a way to make some money while I was transitioning from soccer to football,’’ Gay said. “It’s crazy to think I was there and now I’m here.

“It’s crazy, but when those kicks go in, it makes you feel like you belong.’’

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It was only a 48-yard field goal, not incredibly long by NFL standards. But the winning kick Gay made with six seconds remaining in a 16-14 preseason win over the Dolphins on Friday felt bigger.

Jameis Winston spread his arms in front of his body and clapped enthusiastically. Vernon Hargreaves pounded his chest. Beau Allen danced and swayed his hips.

As they walked to the locker room beneath Raymond James Stadium, fellow rookie Sean Murphy-Bunting waited to congratulate Gay, shouting, “Hey, boy, you’re cold-blooded, dawg!’’

The Bucs hope that with “Matty Ice,” as they called him at the University of Utah, they have finally found a kicker who won’t choke.

In his first NFL game, Gay tied a Heinz Field record with a 55-yard field goal against the Steelers.

The Bucs had a good feeling about Gay, 25, when they drafted him in the fifth round. Though he hasn’t officially won the competition with veteran Cairo Santos, the power and precision Gay has demonstrated will almost certainly earn him the job.

But two years ago, while taking orders at the Texas Roadhouse, Gay was an overweight soccer player sitting on the bench for the Utah Valley University Wolverines and just trying to “get somewhere, in some college.’’

For as long as he could remember, Gay had been a standout soccer player. He was a high school all-state selection in Orem and was chosen for the residency program for the U.S. national under-17 team in Bradenton.

As a freshman and a member of the Wolverines’ first recruiting class, he led the 2014 team in scoring with seven goals and four assists. The next year, he left school for a Mormon Church mission in Houston, where he packed on 25 pounds.

“Barbecue. Tex-Mex. When you’re on a mission, the members down there would feed you,” Gay said. “For you, it’s just another dinner. But for them, it’s like their big dinner for the month. So when I came back from mission, I was, like, 225 pounds. … I couldn’t run. I couldn’t play 90 minutes anymore.’’

In 2016, Gay scored one goal in 15 games as a reserve and fell off every program’s radar.

The only experience Gay had in football was when he kicked extra points and field goals for his high school team as a senior.

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“In soccer, I was always the kid that had the strong, powerful shot,’’ Gay said. “People would always say, ‘You should kick.’ Finally, my senior of high school, my coach was like ‘You can just come to games. Don’t come to practices. I don’t care.’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ ”

Utah Valley coach Greg Maas, who marveled at the power of Gay’s leg, convinced him to give football another try. He set up Gay with Gary Zauner, who spent 13 years as an NFL special teams coordinator and was working as a kicking coach.

Zauner had been the Brigham Young special teams coach four decades earlier, and one of his captains was Kyle Whittingham, now the coach at Utah and who agreed to let Gay walk on.

In 2017, Gay was buried behind two scholarship kickers, but Whittingham turned to him following a missed kick in the season opener, and Gay made his first 14 field-goal tries and 14 extra points. In just his second year of football, Gay won the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s best collegiate kicker.

“For me, it’s just kicking a ball,’’ Gay said. “There’s so much technique that people are taught, and I feel like good people are overtaught and they get too robotic. For me, it’s don’t overthink it; it’s natural.

“Sometimes when I’m struggling or going through a rough patch, I’ll just toss everything out. I won’t even take the steps. I’ll put the ball down and I’ll just start kicking. All I think is, ‘Put it through the uprights.’ ’’

Gay — who is married and has a child on the way — believes he has learned to handle pressure as the youngest of eight children, including five brothers.

“I got beat up by my older brothers,’’ he said. “I had to be that much better.

“At a young age playing soccer, you take those penalty kicks,’’ Gay added. “I always wanted to be fifth. I wanted to be the last one to take them. I wanted the game in my hands.’’

Gay is keenly aware of the Bucs’ recent history of kicking failures with Roberto Aguayo, Nick Folk, Chandler Catanzaro and the rest. But at 6 feet and 231 pounds, he’s naturally stronger and bigger than the 5-foot-8, 168-pound Santos.

“I know what this organization has been through, the situation. But that has nothing to do with me. I’m Matt Gay,” he said. “I’m my own person, and I’m going to be my own person. What I do is what I do. That has nothing to do with someone else.’’

Contact Rick Stroud at Follow @NFLStroud.