UNIVERSITY PARK — Alex Butterworth accepts the fact that he’s not going to top any Penn State football fan’s list of favorite Nittany Lions players.
After all, he’s responsible for a turnover every time he touches the ball.
As the Nittany Lions’ punter, Butterworth has the job of doing so in a safe, efficient manner. Ideally, you never want to see the punter trot onto the field.
“Exactly,” Butterworth, a senior, said.
Butterworth said punting is a thankless job, but one he’s glad to have. And Penn State coaches are glad Butterworth has picked up his pace of late.
Strategically, Butterworth has been a valuable piece for a Penn State offense that has stalled in recent games. While his average is just under 40 yards per punt, Butterworth has pinned Penn State’s opponents inside their own 20 with six of his past 12 punts, and has backed them inside their own five on three of those kicks.
“He’s kicked some big punts for us this year, and that’s been important,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “He put that one inside the five-yard line (against Minnesota). That was an unbelievable punt and (he’s) just continued to work on consistency, but he’s one of the most improved guys on our team.”
Butterworth almost wasn’t on this team. He could just as easily be part of the Purdue squad that will roll into Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
A few phone calls and one long car ride helped change his destiny.
‘The family tradition’
After a successful tour of national kicking camps run by renowned coaches Ray Guy and Jamie Kohl, among others, Butterworth had built an impressive resume as a punter and placekicker. A 52-yard field goal as a sophomore at Heritage Christian School catapulted his stock. He ended his tenure there as one of Indiana’s most decorated specialists and was named 2009 Associated Press first-team all-state kicker.
He had already committed to Purdue as a junior. But a phone call from Penn State’s Larry Johnson to Butterworth’s high school coach, Ron Qualls, piqued Butterworth’s interest and sparked the trip.
Butterworth was sure he would go to the same school his mother, father, twin uncles and grandfather attended. Afterall, he grew up going to Purdue games. His grandparents had season tickets. His grandfather, “Duff” McKenzie, was a team captain on the Boilermakers’ baseball team in the 1950s. Both of his uncles lettered for Purdue football in the ‘80s. He wore their letterman jackets around as a kid.
He grew up idolizing Drew Brees. The most jealous Butterworth ever got? He was nine when a buddy of his asked for Rose Bowl tickets in 2000. The buddy went to Pasadena. Butterworth watched the game from home.
But he had to at least check out what Penn State had to offer. Butterworth remembers the nearly eight-hour trip with his mom from their home just outside Indianapolis to State College.
“The whole car ride up I was telling my mom, ‘I’m not going here. I’m going to Purdue. I want to carry on the family tradition,’” Butterworth said.
But when he arrived at Beaver Stadium in 2010 for Penn State’s spring game, he was mystified.
“I fell in love that weekend,” Butterworth said.
The ride home was full of talk about his future, how much he enjoyed Penn State and how much he’d dread having to decommit from what was once his “dream school.”
“I was consumed with Purdue,” Butterworth said. “It was tough.”
Eventually, his grandfather sold his Purdue season tickets. He had a new team to watch and the comfort of his couch would soon take the place of McKenzie’s seats at Ross-Ade Stadium. His grandson would make his debut in no time.
‘Get ready to start’
At Penn State, Butterworth immediately struck up a friendship with former punter and kicker Anthony Fera. The two are still close despite Fera’s transfer to Texas following Penn State’s NCAA sanctions.
But Butterworth had no clue on the night of Nov. 17, 2010, what had happened to his friend. Butterworth had hung out with Fera that night but retired to his dorm room as he had an 8 a.m. class.
He woke up to a text message from a teammate two days before Indiana was scheduled to play the Nittany Lions at FedEx Field near Washington, D.C. Fera was in the hospital. His appendix had burst.
“You better get ready to start on Saturday.”
While Fera would be fine, there was another problem. Butterworth had already given his tickets for the game away to Brett Brackett.
“I went to Brett and said, ‘I need tickets to this game,’” Butterwoth said. “He goes, ‘I can’t give you the ones that you gave me because I already gave those away. But I will find you tickets.’ He found me four tickets for my parents to come and my brothers.”
Butterworth played the final three games, sharing time with Fera in the Outback Bowl. Fera’s transfer allowed Butterworth to lock down the starting punting spot in 2012.
Since then he’s improved little by little. He’s had to make strides mentally as he admitted Fera left big shoes to fill.
“With Fera being as good as he was, I never really had that confidence,” Butterworth said. “Even last year, when I was the starting guy the whole season, I never really had that confidence because it was my first year being the guy to do it.”
In 2012, Butterworth averaged just over 37 yards per punt. His goal is to up his average to over 41 yards by the end of the season. But distance isn’t always the focal point for the punter.
“There’s so much that goes into it, and when you’re back there waiting on the snap, you’ve got to know what you want to do on this exact yard line, on this side of the field,” Butterworth said. “I would say within every five, 10 yards, there’s a different way you have to do things.”
The wedge and the driver
Recently, Butterworth was coaxed by kicker Sam Ficken to pick up golf. His experience on golf courses helps him explain his primary craft.
Sometimes Butterworth’s right foot is a wedge. Other times he needs to use it as a driver.
He likens a “kill” punt to a short approach shot to a green with a nine-iron. He compares a distance kick to a shot down the fairway with a driver.
On a kill punt — such as the 36-yarder he used to pin Minnesota at its own one-yard line last weekend — Butterworth will use a higher drop, meaning he’ll release the ball around his chin and let it fall to contact his foot. It’ll be a shorter punt, but when he’s punting from Minnesota’s 37, as he was on Saturday, he’s trying to give the ball more lift and a shorter distance to keep it out of the end zone.
He’s also keeping his coverage unit in mind as they need to have time to get down the field to down the ball — as Geno Lewis did against Minnesota — and keep it out of the end zone.
If he’s in his own end zone, he’ll use a lower drop, likely near his waistline or just below, to drive the ball further with less hang time.
If he needs to generate backspin — another trait that helps keep the ball from crossing the goal line for a touchback — Butterworth will drop the ball at a certain angle, or nose it down to get it to spin off his foot the right way.
Hashmarks come into play around midfield if he needs to hit a coffin-corner punt, or boot the ball out of bounds.
Sometimes acting comes into play, too. Against Illinois, Butterworth punted a ball in the fourth quarter but was contacted by an Illinois player who caused his fully-extended leg to move from right to left. Butterworth admits it was a bit of a dive. He also grins and is quick to remind anyone that it resulted in a first down for his team.
“I’ve never done that before,” He said. “I got hit once in high school but I got nailed. That wasn’t even in question. It caused me to swing to the left, but if I even got touched a little bit I’d fall to the ground. That’s just common sense when it comes to punting.”
Accepting the challenge
As the punter, he’s trying to help in any way he can. And if that means retaining a possession rather than giving it away as is his typical job description, then he’s definitely all for it.
His teammates ribbed him after the game when they watched the roughing penalty on film and saw Butterworth jumping up and down celebrating. He wasn’t necessarily fired up over the flag he drew, however.
“Everybody said, ‘You’re so excited,’” Butterworth said. “Well, Brandon Bell was down the field making a great tackle, so I was pretty excited about that.”
In the offseason, O’Brien challenged Butterworth to improve his overall distance. So Butterworth hit the weight room with Ficken and Penn State strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald to work on resistance training.
Butterworth said it’s not as much about power as it is the ability to generate leg speed.
While his average isn’t where he wants it to be yet, Butterworth said he feels a difference in practice.
He was disappointed with his averages in the Ohio State and Illinois games but was singled out by O’Brien for having great situational punting games in those contests.
He’s got three more games to up that average, however.
“When you think back situationally, they were successful games for me,” Butterworth said. “So that’s kind of hard for me to wrap my mind around, but I’m starting to do that now.”