Miles Butler has been around Kentucky football a long, long time.
So long, in fact, that teammates couldn’t help but crack a few jokes when the former Paducah Tilghman kicker was put on scholarship this week along with two other walk-ons.
“I’m the old guy,” Butler said. “So the joke they were making was that my new scholarship check is really just a social security check.”
Butler, who has been a part of the team since the 2014 season, knows that there are hundreds of football statistics to track and analytics to utilize. But ultimately it’s the points that count.
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Almost every point has felt dramatically important in Mark Stoops’ five seasons. In the Cats’ 62 games under the coach, almost half of them (47 percent) have been decided by 11 points or fewer.
A whopping nine of the Cats’ 13 games last season fell under that category, including seven games decided by single digits (four wins and three losses). Two of those games, Florida and Northwestern in the Music City Bowl, were decided by a single point.
Those numbers emphasize the importance of the job that Butler is competing for in his final season: starting place-kicker to replace the program’s all-time leading scorer in Austin MacGinnis.
“Special teams as a whole plays such a huge role because of how close our games are,” Butler said. “Punting even, the fans may not notice it as much, but the hidden yards are there and then some field goals late in games.
“There were some games last year that I know came down to special teams. They can make a real difference one way or another.”
So while some are fixated on the quarterback battle still brewing at the practice facility, the kicker battle is a big one, too.
After the scrimmage on Aug. 11, Stoops said that Kentucky’s kickers had been inconsistent on field goals and needed to improve. Butler had been better that day than true freshman Chance Poore, but nothing is set in stone.
“At this point, Miles is a guy that I know he’s been around here, he’s kicked in some games, filled in for us,” Stoops said of Butler, who was 4-for-4 on field goals and made 11 of his 12 extra points subbing in for an injured MacGinnis in 2015 as a redshirt freshman.
“If I had to play today, Miles would be out there, but Chance has showed a strong leg, so we’ll see where it goes.”
Butler has been steady for the Cats in a lot of ways, including kickoffs and even one game as UK’s punter last year.
The coaches have been looking for ways both in scrimmages and in practices to make kicks as pressured as possible.
“It’s hard in practice because you have to pick your punches,” special teams coach Dean Hood said. “You can’t be sending a full rush at them all the time. It’s more trying to put them under duress with situations, telling them, ‘Hey, this is a field goal to win the game right here’ and whatever the yardage is.
“Then you tell them the next guy is going to kick the next kick and if he kicks it better than you, then that’s the deal.”
In the scrimmage a week ago, kickers lined up for an extra point and then Stoops would back them up to kick something further. That made it more game-like, Butler said.
“You have the whole team watching, the refs and everybody, trying to simulate a game,” he said.
In practice, the kickers will kick five or six in a row and then the next guy will go. It’s different running off and on the field with time in between for each one, Butler said.
Coming out of Westside High School in Anderson, S.C., Poore was rated the No. 1 punter/kicker nationally by Prokicker.com.
Poore is “getting used to the college game and just how fast that snap is and how much faster the holder gets the hold down and how much faster that rush is,” Hood said last week.
Whoever wins the job is going to have big cleats to fill. MacGinnis left UK as the program’s all-time leading scorer with 359 points, including two game-winning field goals in 2016 against Mississippi State and Louisville.
The kicker made all but two of his 145 point-after attempts, including 67 straight, another school record.
Of his six missed field goals last season, half of them were from 50 or more yards.
In his many years at Kentucky, Butler said he learned a lot from MacGinnis and hopes to take it into games this season if he’s named the starting place-kicker.
“He was a really good mentor of mine of how to approach it every day, treat it like a job because that’s what it is,” Butler said. “Even on the days we don’t kick, I still work out and visualize and doing all that, I think I’ve improved even from the spring, I think I’m a lot better.”
Scouting the Cats
This is the eighth of nine stories looking at the 2018 Kentucky football team position by position.
Scouting the special teams
The main man: Lynn Bowden set Kentucky freshman records for most kickoff return yards in a season with 869 as well as most kickoff returns with 37 last year. The speedy sophomore wide receiver is a good bet to be a standout on special teams this season, perhaps even seeing some time as a punt returner. His 93-yard kickoff return at Vanderbilt was the longest for UK since 2009, which is the last time the Cats had one returned for a score.
The supporting cast: It’s a diverse group with several players vying to fill vacant spots at both place-kicker and punter. Former walk-on Miles Butler and true freshman Chance Poore are trying to win the battle for field goal and extra-point duty. Kickoffs are still in play, too. The Cats also return long snappers Blake Best (field goals and extra-point attempts) and Tristan Yeomans (punts, holder for field goals). Max Duffy, a transfer from Australia, won the punter battle in the spring over Grant McKinniss. But McKinniss might be in the hunt on kickoffs as well. Punt return options include David Bouvier, a former Lexington Catholic standout, Bowden and safety Mike Edwards, among others.
Outlook: While other coaches might get sweaty palms each time their place-kicker walks out onto the field, Mark Stoops has had an almost sure thing in Austin MacGinnis, who graduated as the school’s all-time leading scorer (359 points). MacGinnis kicked multiple game winners and rarely missed inside the 50-yard line. So replacing him will be a challenging task and may make things interesting for UK this season. Duffy is still getting used to American rules football, but has a strong leg and performed so well in the spring, he won the punter battle, coaches said. McKinniss remains an option as a utility special teams player. Bouvier, who recently was put on scholarship, sounds like the player most likely to succeed Charles Walker on punt return. “We know what we’re going to get, he’s comfortable, he’s going to secure the ball,” Stoops said. And the Cats are excited about Bowden being back on kick returns, where he showed signs of being a game changer.