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Overreaction Monday: Iowa Football Has New Life

The Hawkeyes added a big time RB in Nevada graduate transfer James Butler last week. Now it’s time to get excited about all the possibilities.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Iowa
The addition of grad transfer James Butler has Kirk Ferentz and staff smiling. Me too.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

What. A. Week. What a week. Wow. Hope you all had a great 4th of July. It was a great time to celebrate the history of our great nation and the things that make it great. One of the most notable being our freedom. And that’s what Independence Day really is about. Celebrating our country’s freedom from oppression, rule by a foreign power and undue taxation without representation.

It seems most fitting that on a day where such things are celebrated and remembered, for the first time in my recent memory the Iowa Football program was the beneficiary of what limited freedom college football players have when it comes to transferring. And as an Iowa fan I’m incredibly excited about the addition of James Butler for a number of reasons.

Last week, we went in depth on the story of James Butler, the graduate transfer from the University of Nevada. The cliff notes version? He’s a kid who grew up in the Chicagoland area without a ton of money who had dreams of playing in the Big Ten. He was close to getting an opportunity at Iowa out of high school, but between coaching changes and the loss of his junior season due to switching to a better academic high school, the offers from Iowa and other power 5 programs never came.

Instead, Butler spent the last three seasons at the University of Nevada in the Mountain West amassing more than 3000 yards, a team MVP honor and pre-season all-conference nominations. And now, on the 4th of July, Butler declared his independence from the Wolfpack to join the Hawkeyes.

Hello Jerry took a dive into how Butler could benefit the Iowa offense this season, but I want to take a moment to recognize some potentially bigger ramifications in my mind. The first, and I think this is really important and totally undervalued by most, is the simple fact that a 3000 yard rusher, a team MVP from an FBS program who was the most elusive RB in the country according to Pro Football Focus a season ago (yes, more elusive than Akrum Wadley) has CHOSEN to give up his sure starting job to join the backfield in Iowa City. This isn’t the classic example of a college athlete transferring for playing time. This is a kid looking for an opportunity to show off his ability to NFL scouts by playing in an offense that will give him the best chance to do so.

Iowa fans have wondered for years why more high profile high school running back recruits haven’t taken notice of the success the Hawkeyes have had on the offensive line and signed up with Coach Ferentz. Now we have a highly talented running back who was coveted by anyone who knew he was on the market (there were reportedly a number of Big Ten teams with immense interest in adding Butler once they found out he was even considering leaving Nevada - he has said he considered Indiana and Louisville as potential landing spots until the end) and he flat out chose the Hawkeyes because they offered the right combination of close to home, big time program and dedication to running the football that gives him the opportunity to compete at the highest level.

That is a win for Iowa Football and the fanbase that’s been scratching their collective heads. And the fact Kirk Ferentz and the rest of the staff were open to the idea of taking a graduate transfer is, in my opinion, a glimmer of hope that all the talk of New Kirk or Kirk 2 (and 3).0 wasn’t necessarily in jest and shouldn’t be thrown out the window just because 2016 didn’t quite live up to the hype following the magic of 2015.

It should give us all hope that this staff is self-aware enough to take a player as talented as Butler, even when their best weapon returning plays the same position. And it should give us further hope if they trust him enough, with only one year in the program and not showing up in Iowa City until mid-July, to actually give him a decent workload. Time will tell just how hopeful we should all be, but on this mid-July (overreaction) Monday, I’m pretty optimistic.

Narrowing the lens a bit, perhaps the biggest reason for optimism going into the 2017 season is Butler himself. Not just the raw talent, of which there is clearly plenty, but the attitude. He seems like everything we’ve come to know and love in a prototypical Iowa guy. He’s saying all the right things. He claims to know full-well the backfield belongs to Akrum Wadley. He claims to be willing to do whatever it takes to earn his spot on the depth chart. He claims to be willing to run, catch the ball out of the backfield or block to find his way onto the field. He claims to want to do whatever the team needs to win games.

Is that not the ideal guy to walk into a locker room as a graduate transfer to pair up with one of the most dynamic backs in recent memory? And all of this before we even talk about his physical abilities. As I said above, Hello Jerry took us into this last week, but it’s Overreaction Monday and I’m not missing my opportunity to launch as much coal as humanly possible into the boiler of the hype train.

James Butler is quick and elusive in a way that has people comparing him to Akrum Wadley. But James Butler is not Akrum Wadley. He possesses a quality that has been the biggest question mark surrounding Wadley and his ability to be an every down back at the next level. James Butler is physical.

I’ve seen him compared to guys like former Wisconsin RB James White or former Iowa RB Fred Russell. I don’t think either of those are physical enough to be apt comparisons. While an inch taller, White was 15 pounds lighter than Butler when he departed Wisconsin. Russell was not only 15 pounds lighter, but also 2 inches shorter when he left Iowa City. Butler isn’t the biggest back at only 5’9” tall, but he is built like an NFL back at 210 pounds. Watching film on him, he doesn’t shy away from contact and he has the strength to power through it.

That video is the example I’ve been giving anyone who will listen and the reason I’m most excited about the addition of Butler to the Iowa backfield. This is a play I think both Butler and Wadley score on, but the difference is how. Wadley likely uses a spin move, jump cut and head fake to go virtually untouched. As we see with Butler, it’s one cut, break the arm tackle and power through a couple more into the endzone.

There will be situations where Iowa needs both styles and now they have in a duo of senior running backs. And the fact they can both catch the ball out of the backfield makes me nearly giddy. The options are endless with the skill-sets these two possess. Now it’s up to Brian Ferentz to utilize them.

I understand there are skeptics and critics who will stand up to say that’s where the problem lies. That Kirk won’t fully take the handcuffs off and Brian is an unproven play-caller who will struggle to really unleash these talents. I disagree for one simple word: necessity. Iowa doesn’t have any other choice. There are limited options in the passing game, further limited by the lack of experience at the quarterback position.

I’m not setting the bar terribly high, but I am optimistic we will see both running backs and tight ends used in (for Kirk Ferentz) creative ways. I think the influence of having Ken O’Keefe in the room will let Kirk loosen the reigns a bit and having Tim Polasek in the room will have the creative juices flowing a bit. As BoilerHawk pointed out last week, NDSU actually ran the ball more frequently than Iowa last year, so I’m not expecting some sort of jump in passing attempts. But having a new QB and extremely limited pass-catching options tells me those attempts are likely to come closer to the line of scrimmage. Who better to be on the receiving end than a pair of guys with the athleticism and elusiveness to make something out of nothing?

Until sometime around noon on September 2nd, I’m going to remain both hopeful and excited about the fact Iowa was able to attract a talent like James Butler and that the staff will find new and creative ways to exploit those talents. Forgive me if I overreact a bit along the way. We’ll have all season to overreact the other direction if things don’t work out as planned.

All the excitement and enthusiasm aside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some less exciting news from the weekend. Yesterday, we learned former Hawkeye player and defensive coordinator Bob “Bobby” Elliott, son of former Iowa athletic director Bump Elliott, passed away after a long battle with a blood cancer that has necessitated both bone marrow and kidney transplants over the years.

Elliott played at Iowa from 1972-1975 and returned to Iowa City in 1987 under Hayden Fry to be defensive backs coach. From 1994-1998 he served as the Hawkeyes’ defensive coordinator. Bob Elliott was 64 years old.

And finally, in an attempt to bring us back in on a slightly positive note, remember these sage words as you attack the work week ahead: you don’t have to be faster than the bull, you just have to be faster than the guy next to you.

Happy Monday people. Get excited about Hawkeye football. Work faster than the guy next to you.