Two of Georgia Tech players’ selections for captain were no surprise. Quarterback Justin Thomas had already been named a captain as a sophomore and junior. Defensive tackle Patrick Gamble has been a dependable piece of the Yellow Jackets defense, receiving the mantle of leadership from former Jacket Adam Gotsis.
The third choice came as a shock, perhaps especially to the young man who was named, kicker Harrison Butker.
“I was really humbled by it,” Butker said. “I wasn’t expecting it at all. It was definitely surprising.”
Butker became Tech’s first specialist to be accorded that honor since 1994, when All-American punter Jason Bender captained that ill-fated team with Jamal Cox. Coach Paul Johnson could recall only one specialist in his 38 years of coaching who had been a captain, kicker Jason Elam (the former Brookwood High star) at Hawaii. Private kicking coach Chris Sailer called it “rare for sure.” Butker wasn’t even a captain of his team at the Westminster School, though he held the honor for both the soccer and basketball teams.
“So for a kicker to get enough votes to win I think says a lot about him as a person and his ability and how hard he works, what he does off the field,” Johnson said.
From a performance standpoint, Butker has proven himself. In 2014, he kicked the last-second game-winner against Virginia Tech and made the just-long-enough 53-yarder against Georgia to force overtime, a kick that forever secured himself a place in Tech history. While the 2015 Florida State will be remembered for another special-teams play – the game-ending touchdown return of a blocked field goal by Lance Austin – Butker set the stage by making all three of his field-goal tries, including a 53-yarder and a dead-center 35-yard strike with 54 seconds left to tie the game.
Tech’s record books are filled with names of kickers familiar to Tech fans, but Butker has the chance to end his career as the school’s all-time leading scorer. Luke Manget holds the record at 322 points. Through the third game of the season, Butker stands at 264. He needs 59 points to pass Manget, which he could accomplish in the regular season if he were to average 6.6 points per game over the final nine games.
“He’s a specialist, but we also view him as a weapon, and he’s been here and he’s been a productive player for the last three seasons going into his fourth season,” A-backs coach Lamar Owens said.
He has asserted himself this season primarily with his barrage of touchbacks. He recorded touchbacks on his first 10 kickoffs and is now 13-for-16, a touchback rate (81.3 percent) that is ninth highest in the country. Each kick into the end zone affixes the opponent to its 25-yard line, eliminating any chance of a long return.
He was 12th last year in touchback percentage at 66.1 percent. He credits improved technique and gains in strength and speed. He has a trick that he uses on kickoffs, hanging out around the Tech 20-yard line, 15 yards behind the kickoff spot.
“Then when you get to the 35, it looks a lot closer,” he said.
That alone likely did not secure Butker the captaincy, however. Johnson said he talks to players in the preseason and prior to the voting about the qualities of a captain.
The message he gives is “Elect somebody as captain that you want to represent you and your values and what you stand for and what you’re about,” Johnson said. “It’s more than just who’s the best player.”
Butler, who is on track to graduate in the spring with an industrial engineering degree, would seem to fit the description.
“He really embodies the Tech mentality of being a complete person, a football player and a student,” said former Tech guard Trey Braun.
He said he takes pride in developing friendships across the team. On a roster of more than 100 players, friendships typically form within position groups or class, but Butker has tried to reach across the locker room and down to younger teammates.
“I know how it was when I came in,” he said. “You’re kind of lost a little bit, so being there for the freshmen and stuff, just trying to help out in any way I can, because, obviously, on the field, I’m not going to be a huge example to them because I’m kind of doing my own thing during practice. But off the field, especially, I like to have relationships with them and try to help them in any way.”
It apparently has had an impact. A year after the team elected a captain born and raised in Australia and in the same year that Thomas became the first three-time captain in team history, a player who was on the field for about six percent of his team’s plays last year has been chosen by his peers to lead them.
“Georgia Tech’s a great program with a lot of tradition,” Butker said. “So thinking about all the captains that came before me is crazy. I’ve said this a lot of times, but I’m humbled. It’s crazy.”
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