IOWA CITY, Iowa — James Butler feels at home at Iowa. It was always that way, even when he sat in Kinnick Stadium when he was in high school.
It’s a good thing because it’s time for Butler to start performing like he did at his last home. The Hawkeyes need the former Nevada standout to be their No. 3 offensive weapon.
“This has always been a place I’ve wanted to play for,” Butler said. “I’ve come to games here since I was a little kid. I am going to help this team try to win a championship.”
Iowa didn’t post a playmakers wanted sign outside the football facility, but the Hawkeyes knew the void was there.
Running back Akrum Wadley is going to be the centerpiece of the offense. Wide receiver Matt VandeBerg is the top receiving option. Both are former all-conference performers.
And behind them are question marks. Iowa lacks established players at skill positions. There is talent. Tight end Noah Fant and wide receiver Brandon Smith have potential, but they are young. Youth can be inconsistent and unpredictable.
It’s why Iowa needed Butler, a graduate transfer. He spent two years being a Mountain West version of Wadley. He thrived in the run and pass game, accumulating 3,754 yards from scrimmage and 30 touchdowns the last three seasons. No returning FBS running back made more defenders miss tackles in 2016.
“He has some good vision,” Wadley said, “and when he gets to the second level he can make cuts, cuts that can’t be coached. He has great hands.”
Why James Butler is ideal for Iowa
The only way Iowa engineers a better offensive option is if they built a 6-foot-5 quarterback with a rocket for a right arm. Butler checks off every other box Iowa is looking to answer this season.
The passing game needs options. Butler is a good one. He caught 37 passes for 387 yards last season. He is a proven pass catcher and someone the new starting quarterback can rely on to get open.
His addition, and emergence of the tight ends, gives the wide receivers a chance to ease into the passing game. That’s a big plus.
He helps alleviate concern about Wadley’s workout. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Wadley isn’t built to sustain 30 touches a game. Iowa wants to lean on the ground attack, especially with so many passing game questions.
Wadley will get plenty of work as a receiver, too. He was second on the team with 315 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns in 2016. It adds up to a heavy workload, which is a concern. Butler gives the Hawkeyes a viable option to spell Wadley and limit his touches to 20 or so a game, a better number to help him make it through the season.
A good first impression
The Hawkeyes won’t win because of their quarterback, especially not early in the season. Iowa needs the other 10 players in the huddle to prop up the offense.
That’s where Butler comes in. Iowa churned out a pair of 1,000-yard rushers last year. The Hawkeyes would love to approach the same level of rushing success this season.
He can serve as an instant jolt, a receiving version of a 5-hour ENERGY drink for the passing game if the receivers struggle.
His skill set allows him to help a little bit everywhere. If he is the No. 3 offensive option, it means Iowa is rushing the ball like it wants to and there is a dynamic component to the passing game. The Hawkeyes are trying to find ways to do both. Butler, when at his best, lets them do it.
“Everything about it since we got the release has been very impressive,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “… I think all of us are enjoying that, really pleased. Anytime you can add a good player, a good person, a high-caliber guy to your roster, that’s a positive.”
Iowa was Butler’s top college choice out of high school in Illinois, but the Hawkeyes looked elsewhere at running back. Butler didn’t think staying at Nevada with first-year coach Jay Norvell was his best option.
Like in high school, Iowa was atop his wish list. This time it happened and the opportunity for big things are there.
He needs to carve out his role. It’s time to find out if the Kinnick Stadium end zone feels the same as the stadium seats.
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