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Get to Know Iowa Football’s Newest Member: Nevada Grad Transfer James Butler

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Iowa added another thousand-yard rusher to the backfield this week. Let’s look beyond the numbers and get to know the newest RB for the Iowa Hawkeyes: Nevada graduate transfer James Butler.

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NCAA Football: Buffalo at Nevada
James Butler was on pace to be the all-time leading rusher at Nevada. Now he’s joining the Iowa Hawkeyes for his final season.
Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

Independence Day is a day known for family get-togethers, patriotism and fireworks. This 4th of July had a few extra fireworks for Iowa Football fans. In the middle of the day, while many of us were out attending to the barbecue or taking in hometown parades, the Hawkeyes added to their deep backfield with former Nevada RB James Butler.

We gave you a glimpse into what Butler might bring to the field for Iowa in our overview as soon as news broke, but given his unique journey to become a Hawkeye, it’s worth taking a deeper dive and getting to know James Butler.

Background

The story on Butler is an intriguing one. He’s originally from the Chicago suburb of Bloomingdale and started his high school career at Bartlett HS. Back as a sophomore at Bartlett HS, Butler flew relatively under the radar, but caught the attention of the coaching staff at Iowa. More precisely, he caught the attention of then RB coach Lester Erb.

Butler made his way to Iowa City for an unofficial visit in November of 2012 while he was still a junior and Erb was still on staff. The Iowa coach was impressed, according to the Chicago Tribune:

Erb fell in love, envisioning a short, squat power back in the mold of Iowa's Jewel Hampton or Wisconsin's James White.

And Butler's intangibles?

"Over a 3.0 GPA," Erb recalls. "Didn't miss class. Dedicated to the weight room. Humble to no end."

That sounds like the kind of kid Iowa tends to go all-in for and works out well in the black and gold. And by all accounts, Butler seemed to really like Iowa. But fast forward a couple months and the abysmal finish to that 2012 season led to a reshuffling in the coaching staff. Lester Erb was out and Chris White was in.

But Erb’s departure wasn’t the last bump in the road for Butler on his journey to Iowa City. He made his way to Iowa’s camp in the summer of 2013, but left without an offer. Iowa wanted to further their evaluation. Butler was no doubt disappointed to not earn the offer.

Enter Nevada and re-enter Lester Erb. Only a few weeks after leaving Iowa, Erb was hired by the Wolfpack. Three days after that camp at Iowa, Erb and Nevada came calling Butler with an offer. It wasn’t his first, but it would be his best.

Going into his junior season, Butler had transferred from Bartlett High School to St. Francis High School in Wheaton to get a better education. The move cost him his junior season and undoubtedly cost him high major offers on the recruiting trail. Much like Iowa, many schools wanted to further their evaluation and camp performances weren’t enough. They wanted to see the tape. But without a junior season, there was none. Schools had to wait for his senior season to get underway.

While his team didn’t perform so well, finishing only 5-5, Butler had a very good senior season. He finished with 1,185 yards on 138 carries (8.6 ypc) and 19 TDs. But the timing seemed to have worked against him. Schools were in the midst of their own seasons and the offers never came.

On November 15th, 2013, Butler took a visit to Nevada. Three days later he made his decision. He was joining Lester Erb and the Wolfpack.

Career

Once he arrived in Reno, it didn’t take long for Butler to show off his talents. As a freshman, he played in all 13 games, amassing more than 600 yards on 140 carries for an average of 4.5 yards per carry.

As a sophomore, he ratcheted things up a bit rushing for 1345 yards on 208 carries (6.5 ypc) with 10 TDs as he averaged more than 100 yards in his 13 games. Furthermore, he started to garner some national attention as Pro Football Focus named him the 9th toughest running back to tackle in the country:

He’s on the smaller side for a running back at 5-9, 200 pounds, and he doesn’t play the same level of competition that the other guys on this list do. But Butler had an outstanding 2015 campaign, ranking No. 1 in yards after contact per attempt with an absurdly high 4.13, and second in elusive rating. He was most effective when running between Nevada’s center and left guard – his 39 attempts yielded 355 yards and three touchdowns, good for a 9.1 yards per carry average.

As a senior, the production continued, as Butler rushed for 1,336 yards on 260 carries (5.1ypc) and 12 TDs. Much like his junior season, Butler showed an innate ability to make people miss. In 2016, Pro Football Focus proclaimed nobody in FBS made more people miss in the running and receiving game than James Butler. Impressive stuff.

The contributions earned Butler the honor of the Golden Helmet Award for the team’s MVP for 2016. He was impressive enough to be named to the pre-season All-Mountain West Conference First Team by Athlon Sports. But at the end of the day, Butler may have felt there was still something to prove at a higher level and certainly wanted to play closer to his mom back in Illinois.

As he mentions in the announcement, Butler worked hard to earn his degree in only 3 years at Nevada. He’ll be a graduate transfer coming to Iowa. As such, he’ll have one year of eligibility and is not required to sit out a season. He does, however, still have a redshirt available should he or the staff decide he needs it.

During his three total seasons at Nevada, Butler rushed for 3,316 yards, ranking him 8th all-time for the Wolfpack. Had he played another season, he would have almost certainly become the school’s all-time leading rusher. In addition to the 3300 yards, Butler amassed 27 TDs on the ground. He also caught 49 passes for 438 yards and 3 TDs. Here’s a look at his career stats.

What to Expect

Measurables

Name: James Butler

Hometown: Bloomingdale, IL

High School: St. Francis (Wheaton)

Height: 5’9”

Weight: 210 lbs

Rating: 3-star

Class: 2014

As mentioned above, it looks like Butler is the type of guy the Hawkeye staff typically tries to bring in. He seems to be a hard worker. He’s clearly focused in the classroom after graduating early. And now he wants to be a Hawkeye.

So aside from the cultural fit, how does he fit into Iowa’s depth chart? Well, we took at look at the current RB situation last week and decided that aside from Akrum Wadley, Iowa was left with a bunch of question marks. A question mark James Butler is not. But he’s also not young. A quick look at the scholarship distribution chart shows things pretty spread out with several guys eyeing playing time after Akrum Wadley. Now it would seem the situation is the same, they will all just be waiting for Butler to depart after this season along with Wadley.

Running back scholarship distribution

POS SR JR SO RS FR Incoming FR Total 2018 COMMITS 2019 COMMITS
POS SR JR SO RS FR Incoming FR Total 2018 COMMITS 2019 COMMITS
RB Akrum Wadley Marcel Joly Toks Akrinibabe Toren Young Kyshaun Bryan; Ivory Kelly-Martin 6 Henry Geil

It’s a win-win here in terms of Iowa getting a proven back to compliment Wadley. They have some similarities, but also enough differences to provide some style changes. Butler gets an opportunity to show he can compete at the highest level in college football and be worthy of a pick in the 2018 NFL draft. Now it’s up to Brian Ferentz to find enough ways to utilize the unique talents of both Wadley and his newest weapon: Butler.

What he offers Brian Ferentz and the offense

Hello Jerry: I’ll admit it. I knew nothing of James Butler before yesterday... and quite honestly, by the time my Fourth of July was over, I still didn’t (but for different reasons).

I can’t say the same today. I dug as deep as I could on both YouTube and Google to find actual tape on Butler in hopes of guessing how he could potentially help Brian Ferentz and the Hawkeyes offense this season (granted, it’s all going to be an educated guess until we actually see what Iowa looks like under BF).

The first thing that jumped out at me (outside of the actual pass catching capabilities out of the back field) was the elusiveness.

Check out this video I found from 2015. Butler squeaks out into the middle of the field as a check down option and then goes all And-1 Mixtape tour for extra yardage:

Are you serious? We have TWO of these dudes now?

Butler had 37 catches in 2016 for 381 yards and three touchdowns on top of 260 rushing attempts for 1,336 yards. For comparisons sake, Akrum Wadley had 36 catches for 315 yards and 168 rushing attempts for 1,081 yards. It’s clear that the Nevada coaching staff wanted to get the rock in his hands last year as much as possible in hopes of getting him into space. Once open, he showed that he could either juke mismatched linebackers out of their shoes (Two Jukers! I can’t wait to drop this video into my Monday Trench Warfare pieces), plow right through a challenger from the secondary, or you know, just run right past them all:

My man Bobby La Gesse touched on this earlier today for Land of 10, so I don’t want to step on his toes, but having both of these players now in an Iowa uniform should allow all of those that were worried about the passing game to take a big, deep breath. If Butler can get acclimated quickly, we SHOULD see plenty of formations with both of them on the field at the same time.

It’s a no-brainer really.

Like La Gesse said, Iowa already liked using Wadley in the slot last year. This year, he’s going to inevitably draw eyes in his direction. Imagine it like the Devin Hester experiment with the Chicago Bears from a few years ago. Just the threat of getting Wadley into space is going to force defenses to make decisions.

That’s what makes Butler so important so quickly. Just the simple addition of a trustworthy and experienced back (remember, this is Kirk Ferentz we’re talking about after all, the words “trustworthy and experienced” have to be tattooed in Swahili somewhere on his body) standing next to the eventual quarterback gives Iowa another play maker/release valve/veteran pass blocker the offense desperately needed.

The more options -insert new Iowa Quarterback here- can have, the better.

Whether if it’s as a zone runner or a pass catcher, everyone from the offensive line, to the quarterback to be named later, to Wadley himself have to be ecstatic over this crucial transfer.

Keeping Wadley’s touches under 200 always seemed like it would be the magic number to keep him on the field. He was in part so effective last year because he was the lightning to LeShun Daniels’ thunder. Daniels was a bowling ball who made defenses pay on the inside run and non-zone plays while Wadley was able to set up defenses to eventually overplay the stretch and punish them with a quick cut when he saw daylight.

The two-headed running back monster worked last year behind this same offensive line to the tune of over two thousand yards. And that was with opposing defenses understanding EXACTLY what Iowa’s gameplan was (control the clock and the field by running) because of how poor the weapons were on the outside.

Butler makes all of those options better than they were on July 3rd.

While it may be a small signing that was dumped on us during a holiday, having Butler on the roster could easily be the difference between the Quick Lane Bowl and the Outback Bowl.