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Butler follows in father's footsteps at UGA

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. University of Georgia punter Drew Butler heads off the field during the game against South Carolina.

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. University of Georgia punter Drew Butler heads off the field during the game against South Carolina.

ATHENS -- Drew Butler knew it was in his genes to kick a football. Still, he managed to take a slightly different path than his father.

Instead of striking it from the side, he uses the top of his right foot.

It's worked out pretty well for both of them.

Kevin Butler starred at Georgia during those giddy days in the early 1980s and went on to play 13 years in the NFL, retiring as the leading scorer in Chicago Bears history. These days, he's cheering on a son who has established himself as the nation's best punter in his first year handling those duties for the Bulldogs.

''It's really incredible what he's done,'' his father said Thursday. ''As far as accolades, he's certainly earned whatever he gets this year.''

The third-year sophomore leads the nation in both punting average (49.2 yards) and net punting (44.0), one of the few bright spots in a largely disappointing season between the hedges.

''He's definitely a guy who surprised me with how dominant he's been this year,'' tight end Aron White said. ''He puts up some great hang times. We'll be watching him in practice and he'll punt the ball and it will just be so high, this perfect spiral."

Growing up, Drew Butler devoted most of his playing time to soccer and golf. But by his 10th grade year of high school, he couldn't resist the urge to follow in his father footsteps -- or fend off those who kept egging him on to see how he might fare in a helmet and shoulder pads.

Not surprisingly, Butler shared his father's strong leg, handling both the kicking and punting duties at Peachtree Ridge High School. He also realized that one job seemed to come a bit easier.

''I knew I was more of a natural punter,'' he said. ''It just felt better to me. I was a little more consistent at it. That's what I felt stronger at.''

He also confided another factor to his father.

''I just recall him one day saying, 'Dad, I'm going to stick with punting,''' Kevin Butler said. '"I just don't know how I would handle it if I missed some big kicks.' I told him, 'You know what? If you don't know how you can handle it, don't do it. Because it will happen. It's going to happen one day at the wrong time and you've got to be able to process that.'''

While Georgia (5-4, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) has failed to live up to expectations -- the Bulldogs head into Saturday's game against Auburn (7-3, 3-3) still trying to ensure they're bowl eligible -- it's hard to imagine where they might be without Butler and their other special-teams weapon, kicker Blair Walsh.

Butler has boomed more than half his punts -- 23 of 40 -- at least 50 yards. He's put 13 inside the 20 while having only two touchbacks. Just 17 of his punts have been returned, showing that he's not just kicking it as far as he can in order to have a lofty average. He often get more than 4 seconds of hang time, allowing his coverage team plenty of opportunity to get downfield.

''He comes out on a consistent basis and changes the field position by 50 yards. That's huge,'' White said. ''He makes it easy on our punt team because he put so much hang time on the ball. The guys have a chance get down there and close ground on the returner. He's really the heart and soul of our punt team.''

If there's any pressure following his famous father, Butler doesn't let it show. He considers it a blessing to have someone who knows what he's going through and is always available on the other end of the line.

''I'm able to call him after practice and if I have questions, he answers them for me,'' Drew Butler said. ''It's very beneficial.''

Kevin Butler said his main contributions come on the mental side, especially passing on what he knows about those long hours of practice when kickers and punters are left on their own.

Dad remembers what that was like. He wants to make sure his son handles all the free time the right way.

''If you don't push yourself, it's going to show at all the wrong times,'' Kevin Butler said. ''You have to consistently push yourself. You find yourself alone a lot of times while the rest of the team is doing their stuff. You've got to be disciplined enough to go out there and do the technical drills day after day. You've got to do the one-steps, do the drops. None of it is glorious. None of it is fun on the surface. But is sure is fun when you're having success with it.''

Drew Butler has clearly been listening.

He sure is having a lot of fun.