UGA's Butler, Walsh getting their kicks

ATHENS -- If you're weary of reading stories about the Georgia football team's failings -- the penalties, the turnovers, the defense, etc. -- this one's for you.

Bucking the trend of an unranked, four-loss team, two Georgia players actually are among the national statistical leaders at their positions:  punter Drew Butler and placekicker Blair Walsh.

This is about them.

"They could be the best tandem in the country," coach Mark Richt said.

Butler leads the nation in punting with an average of 49.2 yards per kick, and Walsh is among the nation's five most reliable placekickers with 13 field goals in 14 attempts.

They are sources of stability on an unstable team.

And they are getting a kick out of each other's success.

"We feed off each other, no doubt," said Butler, a sophomore from Duluth. "Blair's so good at what he does that he makes me want to become better at what I do."

Said Walsh, a sophomore from Boca Raton, Fla.: "If you watch us on the sideline, we're always the first to congratulate each other and talk about what happened on the previous play."

As good as they have been this season, both were question marks when preseason practice began.

Butler was getting his first shot as the Bulldogs' regular punter after two inconsistent years on the practice field, and Walsh was coming off an up-and-down freshman season in which he missed six of his final 11 field-goal attempts.

"Butler and Walsh both just did a fantastic job of deciding they wanted to be great at what they do," Richt said. "And they got focused, and they worked their tails off."

The results:

*Butler's 49.2-yard average on 40 punts not only leads the nation by almost four yards, but is on pace to break Chip Andrews' 25-year-old UGA record (45.4 yards). Georgia also leads the nation in net punting (punts minus returns/touchbacks) with an average of 43.9 yards. Butler's late 64-yard punt against Arkansas was pivotal to Georgia winning that game.

*Walsh's .929 percentage on field goals ranks fifth nationally, and he is 7-for-7 from 40-plus yards, including 3-for-3 from 50-plus. He kicked a 37-yarder as time expired to beat Arizona State. He also remains perfect in his UGA career on extra points (77-for-77) and increasingly has been putting kickoffs where his coaches want them.

No less an authority than Dan Magill -- the legendary UGA sports historian -- declared in his Athens newspaper column last week that Butler "is a good bet to become Georgia's first All-America punter."

"I thought it was really cool," Butler said of Magill's column.

The Butler family already has produced one All-American for Georgia: Drew's father, Kevin, as a placekicker in the early 1980s.

Notwithstanding the Butler family legacy, Richt expressed concerns during the summer about whether his new punter would be consistent enough. Butler quietly knew there was nothing for the coach to worry about.

"I'd been waiting for this the last two years," Butler said. "I might not have shown it so good in my practice performance, but I knew I was going to be ready for the job."

Walsh also created some doubts last year. After making 10 of his first 12 field-goal attempts as a freshman, he slumped. And his kickoffs were so erratic that Richt famously said at one point that he might look as far as Poland for a replacement.

Richt did bring in a kickoff specialist -- from California -- but Walsh recently has solidified his hold on the role, apparently coming to grips with the coaches' controversial directional-kickoff strategy.

"When there is wind at your back, let it rip, knock it out [of the end zone] if you feel it," Richt said. "But ... you just can't kick every one out of the end zone. That's why they moved [kickoffs] back to the 30[-yard line]. So now he understands the hang-time issue, the ball-placement issue, and it's paid really big dividends for our kickoff-coverage team."

As a placekicker, Walsh this week was named one of 20 semifinalists for the Lou Groza Award. That goes to the nation's top placekicker each year.

Walsh and Butler room together on road trips and share the language of kickers. "He gets what I'm talking about," Walsh said, "and I get what he's talking about." Adding to the bond: Butler is Walsh's holder on field goals and extra points.

"He's a fantastic holder," Walsh said. "I'm truly blessed to have him as a holder."

Walsh appreciates Richt's assessment that Georgia might have the best punter-placekicker tandem in college football.

"UCLA has got a good tandem, too," Walsh said, "but I think we're definitely up there. We just got to keep it going."

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