Feb. 22, 2014
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Kickers are a special breed and Georgia Tech freshman kicker Harrison Butker fits that mold.
But Butker is not special because of any bizarre rituals — unless, of course, you consider excelling in the classroom and on the field bizarre rituals.
What made the Decatur, Ga., native special was that combination of athletic and academic excellence that resulted in his being named to the All-ACC Academic Team, joining offensive linemen Ray Beno and Trey Braun. The trio are the 21st, 22nd and 23rd Yellow Jackets to make the team in Head Coach Paul Johnson’s six seasons.
It’s no small feat, as Butker is only the fifth place-kicker in school history to earn All-ACC Academic Team honors and the first Jackets’ kick to do so since Scott Blair in 2010. Dave Frakes (1995, ’96), Luke Manget (2002), Travis Bell (2004-07), and Blair also adorn that list.
Student-Athletes must earn at least a 3.0 GPA and sustain that mark to remain on the team.
The honor caps an eventful freshman year in which he learned lessons as difficult as properly managing his study time off the field and as simple as managing his emotions on the sideline and controlling the urge to over-kick to warm up.
“At the start of the season I always would try to do a really big warm-up and kick into the net a lot,” he recalled. “I remember Elon. I was just kicking, even when we were on defense. I’ve slowed down so I’m only really kicking when we have the ball and we’re passed the 50-yard line. Then I’ll start warming up because I know the importance of saving your leg.”
Elon was understandable, as that was his collegiate debut. He also had no idea he’d be called on for eight extra points and nine kickoffs. He did just fine, making all eight PATs and getting seven touchbacks (he put one ball out of bounds).
Butker admits the season was a continual learning process, and he credits senior kicker David Scully, whose starting spot he’d take.
“He taught me a lot, just watching him kick,” Butker said. “He talked to me about my technique, about every-game rituals, what you want to do before the game, stuff like that. He was a great mentor for me.”
Butker proved a quick study and a dependable leg. He made 53 of 54 extra points and 10 of 14 field goal attempts. The 53 PATs tied for second-most in a season in school history, while his strong leg was evidenced by his 5-for-7 success in kicks 40-to-49 yards (he twice booted field goals of 49 yards).
He also was eager to mix it up on kickoffs, as he had four solo tackles, including two against North Carolina.
Tackling required work with special teams coach Dave Walkosky and exorcising some personal ghosts.
“In high school, I had like maybe one tackle my junior year, and my senior year, I had an awful tackle. I just crouched down and the guy just speared me right in the chest. It was embarrassing,” he recalled. “Then, I remember, before the North Carolina game, I was talking about, `How should I tackle?’ because I had no clue. I just went for the knees and it worked out. We practiced that a little bit in practice so I think that helped, but it wasn’t that much of a problem this year.”
The four kickoffs he put out of bounds are a different story.
“I think one of the problems this season was mishitting some kickoffs,” he said. “I had maybe three or four out of bounds, which is unacceptable. So I’ll really work on that this off-season. I was just trying to kick it too hard, I guess.”
It’s safe to say he’ll adapt. He’s already shown he can adapt to Georgia Tech’s academic demands.
He credits that to his work last summer and the team’s academic advisors.
“The summer actually helped me a lot with budgeting my time,” he said. “The academic coordinators do a great job and they try to make the fall semester a little bit easier than the spring, so I’m not worried too much about school. But I think summer helped me a lot with time management.”
Time management off the field allowed him to stay ahead of his studies and helped him stay relaxed on game day. Not even the pressure of prime time on Thursday night in Death Valley against Clemson bothered him.
“I don’t now why, but I just had no nerves. I was just really comfortable,” Butker recalled of the game in which he went 4-for-4 on extra points and hit his lone field goal attempt, a 33-yarder. “Of course it was a big game on Thursday night but I felt really comfortable. It was weird. I don’t know why, but to this day, at the end of the season looking back, I just went out there and kicked. I didn’t really think about it that much.”
That kind of focus, combined with his big leg and experience gained in his first season will help as he heads into his second summer on the Flats. He plans to follow a blueprint similar to last summer.
“I’ll be doing both sessions of summer school,” Butker said. “But I’ll definitely try to do some internships in the summer for my junior and senior year.”
He’s also mentally preparing for his second football season and as off-season workouts go on, he sees himself bigger and playing a bigger part in team success. He’ll simply take it one step at a time.
“I’m really looking forward to getting my leg stronger because I know that will help a lot with my distance,” he added. “I’m just trying to be a regular football player doing the same workouts everybody else is doing, just trying to be the best athlete I can be.”
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