Inside James Butler's long road to the Hawkeyes backfield

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — To understand why James Butler just arrived this week to begin his Iowa Hawkeye football career, you have to flash back to the beginning of the 2012 school year.

Butler had transferred from the public Bartlett High School to the private St. Francis in Chicago’s northwest suburbs for his junior year. When the Illinois High School Association ruled him ineligible to play football that fall, Butler had one weekend to make a momentous decision: Go back to Bartlett, so he could stay on the radar of college recruiters, or stay at St. Francis for a better education but forfeit one vital season of his prep career.

“I told him a week before the season to transfer back to Bartlett. You’re not going to have a junior season of film, and scouts are going to think, ‘What happened to him?’” recalled Greg Purnell, the Iowa native who was then the coach at St. Francis. “I told him that Friday, and on Monday morning James walked in to my office and said, ‘Coach, I’m staying. I just love it here.’"

James Butler rushed for 3,313 yards in three years at Nevada. Now he's an Iowa Hawkeye, hoping to spend his final college season finding more room to roam behind a veteran offensive line.

Lester Erb, who was then coaching Iowa’s running backs, was already high on Butler, bringing him to campus for an unofficial visit. Butler was already high on Iowa, having attended games at Kinnick Stadium since he was a sixth-grader.

But Erb left the Hawkeyes in February 2013, and with him went any interest in a high school tailback who had been idle the previous fall.

Butler returned to the football field as a senior and ripped off 435 yards and seven touchdowns in his first two games for St. Francis. He finished with 1,185 yards but missed his final two games after suffering a concussion. His college recruitment was tepid, and so when Erb beckoned him to join him at Nevada, Butler decided to give up his dream of playing in the Big Ten Conference and headed for the Mountain West.

Butler planned on earning his degree in communications in three years, so he could have that in his back pocket if he opted to enter the NFL Draft at that point.

Or if he wanted to transfer to a bigger school.

After racking up 3,313 rushing yards in three seasons with the Wolf Pack, after seeing Erb and head coach Brian Polian let go by Nevada in the offseason, Butler decided it was time to move on.

This time, Iowa was happy to oblige.

James Butler shows off Nevada's new uniforms.

'I want to go to Iowa'

Brian Flood has been a mentor to Butler since he began coaching him in youth football. Flood’s son, Justin, and Butler are best friends. Flood paid to fly Butler’s mother, Cornelia Williams, out to Nevada as a surprise before a homesick Butler made his Wolf Pack debut as a freshman.

So Flood was with Butler this winter shortly after Erb’s dismissal at Nevada. He saw Butler walk downstairs wearing an Iowa Hawkeyes hoodie, and raised an eyebrow.

“He said, ‘I want to go to Iowa,’” Flood recalled this week. “He’s always wanted to go to Iowa. I took him to his first tailgate at Kinnick when he was a sixth-grader.”

Justin Flood is a senior at Iowa and a student manager for the football team. Playing for the Hawkeyes would mean Williams could attend all of Butler’s games, instead of only two a year. And it would give Butler the chance he had always longed for — to prove that he could hack it in the Big Ten.

Butler quietly got his release from Nevada. Word got out among football coaches that he was ready to move on. Flood said Indiana and Louisville also expressed interest. But the Hawkeyes were always the front-runner.

Butler announced his decision July 4 and then stuck around Nevada to get his diploma. On Monday, Flood helped him move to Iowa City, into a house with Hawkeye linemen James Daniels and Boone Myers. Fittingly, Butler’s taking the room vacated by LeShun Daniels Jr., who graduated after gaining 1,000 yards last season.

Tailback Akrum Wadley eclipsed that mark as well, the first time two Hawkeyes had done so in the same year. Wadley also turned down the chance to enter the NFL Draft to return for one more year as Iowa’s lead back. Now, Butler and Wadley are unexpected backfield mates, and the obvious question becomes: Can both of them put aside any egos and flourish behind a veteran offensive line?

Wadley told reporters last week that he was happy to try, saying “the more the merrier.”

Flood said he has no doubt about Butler’s motivation.

“James could have won Mountain West offensive player of the year. He was the team captain, the face of the program. He walked away from all of that to come to Iowa to play for the team he’s always wanted to play for,” Flood said. “How many people walk away from the top of the hill to go to a situation where Day 1 you’re not going to be the starter?”

A one-two punch?

Flood said Butler weighed in at 216 pounds when he took his physical Monday. Wadley is listed at 195 and has battled to keep his weight above the 190 mark. Both are elusive in the open field and capable receivers out of the backfield. Butler seems better equipped to absorb a pounding.

“He runs so devastating between the tackles. He cuts in the hole extremely well. I’ve never seen a kid that could cut in the hole like him,” raved Purnell, Butler’s high school coach who won three state titles while at Linn-Mar of Marion. “And then he has extremely quick acceleration and that is what enables him to really excel.”

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Wednesday that he sat down with Wadley before Butler’s transfer was announced and explained to him the rationale for adding an experienced tailback. It’s what’s best for both Wadley and the team, Ferentz told him.

“You can never have too many good players at any position,” Ferentz said. “Akrum’s a better player if we don’t run him 25 times. … Realistically, it’s a long season. If we have a chance to split some carries and touches, that would be great. If (Butler) can have the kind of success with us that he had in Nevada, it would be a real plus for our football team.”

Butler will be taking a step up in competition at Iowa. Flood is eager to see what he can do with better blocking.

“He was getting hit in the backfield on 60 percent of his carries” at Nevada, Flood said. “I told him, ‘You’re going to be running through holes that are so big you’re not gonna know what to do with them.”

And it was all made possible because Butler put football aside as a high school junior and concentrated on his education. He graduated from St. Francis with a 3.5 GPA and from Nevada with a 3.22.

“The night the IHSA said he couldn’t play (as a junior), he called up and said, ‘Mr. Flood, what should I do?’” Brian Flood said. “I said, ‘Football’s only going to last you so long. Your brain’s going to last you forever.’ He chose to sit out to get the education as opposed to playing that one year.

“And that gave him the discipline to graduate college in three years. And if he hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t be talking about Iowa right now. He didn’t come to Iowa to compete with Wadley. He didn’t come to Iowa to get to the NFL. He came to Iowa because he graduated in three years. So why not go and live his dream for one year?”