Some people are born into their future profession, even if they don’t realize it right away. Drew Butler, the son of an NFL placekicker, is one of those people. Even though he came to football a little later than a lot of pros, the Steelers’ rookie punter got the hang of things quickly.
As a redshirt sophomore at the University of Georgia, Butler won the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s most outstanding punter, and he didn’t slow down from there. He finished his career with the third-longest punting average in SEC history and was named to UGA’s “Team of the Decade,” to go along with Academic All-America honors. After signing with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent this summer, Butler is doing what he can to build a career in the league.
We caught up with the Duluth, Georgia native to see how life in the NFL is treating him, how he’s honed his technique and—most importantly if you’re from SEC country—what he thinks of his Dawgs this season.
Drew Butler: It’s been good so far, I’ve got great people around me. Coach Tomlin is a great guy, the organization is first class. Luckily for me our snapper and our kicker both have eight years of experience. Really, I just follow their lead, I do what I’m told and try to keep quiet. So far that’s worked out for me and I’m just trying to take it week by week, go game to game and kind of live that lifestyle, see how far it will take me.
TD: Were you anticipating getting a call from a team after going undrafted?
DB: Yeah, for sure. I had expected to get drafted. The feedback I had received through my agent definitely told me that I probably would have. I mean, I definitely understood there was a chance I wouldn’t have, either. Calls started coming in during the seventh round and the Steelers really stood out to me. It seemed like a great opportunity and I was able to take advantage of that opportunity, so I’m very thankful for that.
TD: What kind of things are you looking to improve upon as the season moves along?
DB: I think really just getting better every single game. Being a rookie, there’s a big adjustment to make so if you can just show improvement week to week and prove yourself more comfortable, show that you can perform in any situation that presents itself and just be dependable for the coaches and for your teammates, whether it’s a big game or a game in which you guys have a big lead, you’ve got to go out there and keep performing. Just showing that consistency, showing that improvement over the weeks and just really becoming a better player week to week has been my main goal. Obviously, punters can improve on lots of things on every single punt. So really for me, it’s just a general improvement week to week and just trying to build up and be dependable for my coaches and teammates.
TD: Knowing that you have an offense that can move the ball, does that change your mindset at all as a punter?
DB: Not really. I mean, I saw a statistic today that the Steelers are No. 1 in third down conversions. [Pittsburgh ranks first at 51.3 percent —Ed.] A lot of times you’ll be ready to go punt on third down but then they’ll convert, you’ve just got to keep your focus up throughout the entire game, but that’s something all punters are familiar with. Obviously, in the NFL now, third down is a really big down and it can swing games, so credit to our offense, they’ve been playing outstanding. Our defense as well, helping us get out of some jam positions and allowing me to play with the field position and so far it’s been a pretty good mix I feel like, and I’m looking forward to continuing that over the next few weeks.
TD: You were involved in the fake field goal Sunday against the Giants. Any chance Coach Tomlin lets you throw a pass sometime this year?
DB: (Laughs) I don’t know, I’ve never thrown a pass and maybe that will go against me but if they want to practice it I’m more than glad to do it. I hope they understand that I am an athlete and I’m here to help the team in any way possible so if that bridge presents itself down the road we’ll have to cross it.
TD: You’ve got your first Monday Night game coming up this week, are you any more excited or nervous than usual?
DB: It’s been really cool being able to play for the Steelers because every game is on a national stage. Obviously, Sunday Night games, primetime CBS 4 o’clock games, big-time 1 o’clock games, this is just another week for us. But it’s going to be very special for sure, growing up watching Monday Night Football, the biggest game of the week, and being able to be a part of it now is a dream come true and I’m honored to be able to do it with Steelers. Hopefully we can get another win and keep going from there.
TD: You guys are locked in a tough division race—the Ravens are always going to be tough and the Bengals are an up-and-coming team. How do you see the season playing out for you guys?
DB: I think it’s going pretty well. We’ve been doing a good job, obviously we’re playing good football right now and we just need to continue to stack wins and ride that wave. Divisional play will come into effect here pretty soon and we just need to continue to do what we’ve been doing to get us to this point and I think that we have the right team and the right coaches to do that.
TD: Your dad was an NFL kicker (Kevin Butler, kicker for the Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals from 1985-1997). What kind of influence has that had on your career?
DB: Really, not much. I played golf most of my life until 10th grade of high school when I just for some reason had an itch to go try out for the football team. Once I did that, he only had one rule and that is that we were going to go 100 percent and we’re not looking back. I put in a lot of work, a lot of time, a lot of effort and luckily for me my dad’s been my biggest mentor. He’s been a great coach and a great friend throughout this entire process. He’s been a huge help and I can’t thank him enough and he continues to be a huge help every day.
TD: So you didn’t play soccer or anything like that? You just switched from golf over to football?
DB: I did play soccer but I actually quit to focus on golf. I started playing junior golf tournaments so I traveled a little bit for that and after golf I just took up football. It was a pretty easy transition. I actually still do play a lot of golf. Kicking and golfing are pretty relatable and it definitely helps.
TD: Golf is definitely a mental game. That mental aspect, does that help you, as punter, to keep your head straight?
DB: Without a doubt. The golf swing and the kicking motion, technique-wise, are very transferable as well. Knowing the basics of a golf swing and having my craft be punting, it’s good to be able to relate things and kind of bounce things off of each other. Like you said, just that mental grind and that focus that it takes to play a four hour round of golf relates extremely well into having to stay focused for a four hour game of football.
TD: There’s not a whole lot of punters in the NFL, is it competitive amongst you guys or is it more fraternal?
DB: I think it’s a little bit of both. Obviously there’s a fraternal aspect; I’m honored to be a part of that fraternity of sorts this season. But, obviously everyone wants to be the best. You shake hands and you catch up before the game, but then you go compete because that’s what it’s all about during the games. After the game, you congratulate each other, you wish them luck and you tell them to keep in touch. I’m just glad to be a part of it, I’m just trying to perform week in and week out and gain respect any way I can so hopefully I can do that over the next couple months.
TD: Do you study any other kickers’ techniques, or take from other sports like rugby or soccer?
DB: I definitely do. Watching guys that have performed here in Pittsburgh before me and guys who have had long, extensive careers like Jeff Feagles. Those guys, you can learn a lot from. Then you look at guys who are performing at a very high level now like Shane Lechler and Andy Lee. You kind of watch them and see where they gain their advantage and if they have something you can implement into your game, you test it out during the week. It’s been fun, being able to see All-Pros perform live in action is really cool too. It’s been a learning experience and I think for as long as I play I’ll always be learning.
TD: How much have you been following your Bulldogs this year?
DB: A lot, man. It’s a cool experience to be able to follow them on the TV. They’ve been playing great football, they just need to keep it up. I’m a little worried about the slow starts they’ve been having the past couple weeks, but hopefully they peak at the right time and they take care of business this weekend and compete in Atlanta [in the SEC Championship game] versus, probably, Alabama here in a few weeks.
TD: Do you think they can tackle Alabama, or do you think they just be too good to have anyone beat them this year?
DB: Oh, they can definitely tackle ‘Bama. As long as Georgia doesn’t beat themselves they can play with anybody. Against a well-disciplined, well-prepared team like Alabama, you can’t turn the ball over, you’ve got to control the clock and you’ve got to make plays when you need to make them. Georgia has the playmakers, they have the defense like we’ve seen, and as long as they take care of the ball and manage the clock they can compete with anybody in the nation. I definitely think they’ll be able to, in a setting like Atlanta and versus a national championship-caliber team like Alabama.
TD: You were involved in some big games while you were at Georgia, any that particularly stand out to you?
DB: The SEC Championship game last year was huge. Playing Florida last year was big for us as a team. But then, every year you’re playing a top-5 or possibly No. 1-ranked team in the nation so it’s fun to play in those marquee games, it’s awesome to play against All-Americans and guys who are going to succeed in the National Football League. Being able to be around that kind of talent and having to prepare like we prepared week in and week out definitely helped me to get to where I am.