Walsh, Butler leading revolution on special teams for Dogs

The Georgia Bulldogs play special teams with the attitude that they’re good at it and they want people to know it.

Georgia kicker Blair Walsh set the school record for consecutive extra points with his 115th straight PAT last week.
Kelly Wegel

That confidence comes from a couple of sure-footed players – kicker Blair Walsh and punter Drew Butler, who rank among the best in the Southeastern Conference.

“Oh, they’ve definitely got some swag to them,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. “They’ve got that borderline confidence-cocky air about them like all the great ones do. They’re not cocky, but they’re confident, which is a good thing.

“That’s what gives them the confidence to produce like they do. We love it. We know they’re producing and working hard. We’re definitely happy for all they do for this team.”

Georgia (3-4, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) either leads or is second in the league in four special teams categories – kickoff coverage (No. 1) punting (No. 2), field goals (No. 2) and PAT kicking (tied for No. 1). The Bulldogs also rank near the middle of the conference in kickoff returns (No. 7) and punt return average (No. 5).

“They’re really cool guys,” Georgia cornerback Sanders Commings said. “It’s a little funny to see kickers with that kind of swagger. They walk around like they’re quarterbacks, like Aaron Murray. But they’re good. They’re two of the best kickers in the nation, so I guess they can have that kind of swagger.”

Family ties

Butler, the son of former Georgia kicker Kevin Butler, led the nation in punting last season (48.1 yards per kick, 19 downed inside the 20) and won the Ray Guy Award.

“We spend a lot of time in practice on special teams,” Butler said. “One play on special teams can swing momentum, whether it’s a big kick to change field position, or whatever. Everybody understands that and we want to make sure we’re in a good part of it.”

Butler’s average has dropped to 45 yards per kick this season, but opponents average 1.5 yards a return and he has placed nine inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

“What’s going on this year is good gains,” Butler said. “We’ve severely cut down return yards. The coverage team’s been fantastic. I’ve been punting the ball and giving our guys a chance to get down and get in position. I look at my numbers and I’m definitely satisfied.

“We’re kicking from different positions on the field and we’re limiting return yards as much as we can.”

Butler had a three-game stretch where he averaged 42.8 yards against South Carolina, 43.8 yards against Arkansas and 42.7 yards against Mississippi State and all those games ended as losses for the Bulldogs.

But in his last three games, Butler has averaged 46.3 yards against Colorado, 43.5 yards against Tennessee and last week averaged 49.0 yards with three inside the 20 against Vanderbilt.

“We’re definitely seeing some improvement as the year’s gone on,” Butler said. “That’s something that didn’t really happen last year. We kind of tapered off toward the end of the season. But we’re not doing that right now. We’re getting better and that’s what you want.”

Automatic for the people

Walsh has become almost automatic no matter the distance in the last two seasons. He has made 33 of 37 field goals the last two seasons, including 5 of 6 from greater than 50 yards.

On top of the on-target field goal kicking, Walsh has never missed an extra point, making a school-record 115 in a row since he was a freshman.

“There’s a lot that goes into it,” Walsh said. “There’s a lot of maintenance, too. Right now, we’re in the middle of the season and your leg’s starting to feel sore. It seemed like when I was a freshman, I never got sore, but now I don’t bounce back as fast, so there’s some maintenance involved.

“There’s a fine line because we’re worried about a 4.1 (second) hang time as opposed to a 4.0 hang time. That little bit makes a difference.”

Fundamentals and attention to detail mean the world to kickers who only get one down at a time to achieve their goal.

A fraction of an inch on contact can profoundly affect the percentages. Butler and Walsh approach their craft much like a baseball hitter who spends hours in the batting cage perfecting his swing.

“They are technicians,” Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson said. “We like to poke fun at them, but they are really good at what they do. We see them putting in the time perfecting everything and it pays off.”

Kicking is one of those disciplines that people don’t tend to notice unless something goes wrong. A missed field goal or a shanked punt can put the whole team in a bind.

“It goes with the job description,” Walsh said. “You’ve got to love it. You’ve got to love the pressure of going out there and kicking. If you hit a great field goal or if you hit a punt that really pins them back, people will congratulate you for that.

“But if you miss something or do something bad, that tends to be the only time you get noticed. But we’re okay with it. We know if we do a good job, we’re satisfied, and that’s what counts.”

Total team effort

Kicking and punting might be the glamour jobs on special teams, but Walsh and Butler never go on the field alone. Georgia’s return and coverage teams have moved toward the top of the SEC charts this season.

Kickoff coverage has made an especially sharp jump in the past year. Last season, Georgia was eighth in the SEC with a 40.1-yard net per attempt. So far this season, Georgia nets 47.4 yards an attempt, which leads the SEC by nearly 2 yards.

“The guys on the kickoff-coverage team take a lot of pride in it,” kickoff coverage coach Warren Belin said. “There is a lot of excitement. There are guys asking every day to get on this team. I hope that excitement continues because it is an indication that our kickoff-coverage team, as well as all our special teams, are playing extremely well across the board.”

Exactly what the kickoff-coverage team has done to improve its numbers remains a mystery.

Walsh tries to hang the ball in the air as long as possible and as deeply as possible to give the coverage team time to converge on the ball. The rest has been the result of quick pursuit and efficient tackling.

“You just get down there, don’t get blocked and make that tackle, more or less,” gunner Blake Sailors said. “We just watch Blair kick it and then we run down there and make the tackle. It’s simple.”

Last season, Georgia had one of the most explosive kickoff return men in the SEC. Brandon Boykin tied for the league’s lead with three kickoff returns for touchdowns.

But the scouting report hasn’t gone unnoticed in the conference this season as Boykin’s average has dropped to 24.8 yards. However, he did break free for a 72-yard return last week against Vanderbilt.

“I’m not getting as many chances this year,” Boykin said. “A lot of times they’re gameplanning it, squibbing it or kicking it short. Whenever we do get the ball, I feel like we do need to get the best out of it.”

Georgia’s punt-return team has been a work in progress much of the season. Projected returner Branden Smith has missed two games with concussions. Logan Gray, who had been the safety punt returner, has taken over much of the duty with receiver A.J. Green chipping in on special situations.

Georgia is fifth in the SEC in punt-return average at 9.8 per chance. Last year, the Bulldogs were fourth with an 11.1 average.

“That’s huge to know if we can stop an offense, we can reverse the field,” Robinson said. “Plus, we know if we can stop them, we know we don’t need too much more yardage and Blair can hit a field goal, so it’s a huge load off of our mind.”
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