Iowa football takeaways: On James Butler's medical clearance, Matt Nelson's selfless move

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — James Butler, an instrumental cog in Iowa’s run-game plans before suffering a gruesome elbow injury in Week 3, has been medically cleared to play.

The news, revealed by Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz on Tuesday, means more relief is on the way for heavily used star running back Akrum Wadley.

Butler won’t play in Saturday’s game at Northwestern (11 a.m., ESPN2). It's possible the senior could return Oct. 28 against Minnesota.

“It's just good to get him back in football movements a little bit and doing some things,” Ferentz said. “We'll have to try to get him back into football shape, football speed, and like I said, go through the adjustment. But he's eager and willing to get going.”

The “adjustment” is wondering how a running back who generally carries the ball in his right arm can perform while wearing a right-elbow brace.

Running back James Butler was a trusted option out of Iowa's backfield in a 44-41 win at Iowa State on Sept. 9.

“We're going to find out. I've never gone through this to my recollection,” Ferentz said. “We've had linemen with elbow issues, that type of thing, but I can't remember one of these.”

Butler, a graduate transfer who amassed more than 3,300 rushing yards at Nevada, ran 36 times for 158 yards (4.4 per carry) before getting hurt against North Texas. In his absence, Iowa has been fast-tracking freshmen Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin.

Both saw action in the 45-16 win against Illinois on Oct. 7, and last week offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz made it clear that both players were in line for more playing time.

The bye week, Kirk Ferentz said, was beneficial in the youngsters' development.

“They both looked better than they did a week ago,” he said. “The good thing about young players — and we've got a lot of young players playing right now — if they practice well, if their mind is in the right place, they can improve a little bit more dramatically than a … guy that's played a lot. That's something we're banking on.”

This is all good news for Iowa football, which two years ago at Northwestern was down to its fourth-string running back in Wadley.

Now Wadley is No. 1. He proclaimed himself healthy and fresh Tuesday, ready for the finishing six-game stretch.

Nelson's big adjustment

Matt Nelson is trying to get bigger and lower at the same time.

The junior from Cedar Rapids has probably been an underappreciated story on Iowa’s defense. Here’s a guy who started 13 games at defensive end as a sophomore, then was asked to become a backup defensive tackle.

“It was a little tough at first,” he admitted Tuesday. “But I got over it pretty quickly. Because I love this D-line.”

Nelson has been the top backup to defensive-tackle starters Nathan Bazata and Cedrick Lattimore, with Brady Reiff and even Garrett Jansen joining the rotation, too. He’s trying to learn proper technique on the fly.

“It’s starting to slow down for me a little bit,” Nelson said. “Starting to get more confidence.”

Part of the reason Nelson slid inside was because Iowa lacked depth after losing seniors Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie off last year’s team. The Hawkeyes don’t have an explosive tackle like Johnson (a fourth-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings) on this year’s roster.

Nelson hopes to eventually be that guy. But at 6-foot-8, 285 pounds, staying low to the ground is a constant challenge.

“Coach (Reese) Morgan will still yell at me (to) get lower,” Nelson said. “It’s never good enough for him, which is good.”

Iowa's Nathan Bazata, left, and Matt Nelson tackle North Texas' Jeffery Wilson during their game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017.

But, Coach, he’s 6-8.

“We have a sign up in our room that says, 'no excuses, no explanations,'” Nelson said. “So he’s not going to listen to that.”

Nelson has nine tackles in six games. Playing defensive tackle is grunt work — much like fullback on offense — where the primary job is often to sacrifice your body so that someone else can make the play.

That’s quite a contrast from a much more glamorous position of defensive end — where he had 43 stops, including 5½ sacks, last fall — but it’s a selfless switch worth appreciating.

Coaches ultimately gave Nelson the choice. His move inside has made it possible for promising true freshman A.J. Epenesa to get more playing time at defensive end.

“I just wanted to do whatever I could to help the D-line as a unit,” Nelson said. “If my spot’s inside, my spot’s inside.”

On Iowa’s NFL starting QB

News about two NFL quarterbacks swept into Nate Stanley’s world during the bye weekend.

First, he noticed the man he played behind last season is now one of 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL. C.J. Beathard has taken hold of that job with the San Francisco 49ers after coming off the bench to complete 19 of 36 passes for 245 yards Sunday against the Washington Redskins.

Stanley, Iowa’s sophomore starter, called it “pretty special” to know an NFL starter but wasn’t surprised at Beathard’s ascent.

“He always pushed me to be prepared if something were to happen to him,” Stanley said. “Same thing for him, stepping in (in the second quarter), and obviously he was prepared and played really well.”

Beathard has been named the 49ers’ starter for this week’s game against the Dallas Cowboys. And he now is the new answer to the trivia question of, “Who was the last former Hawkeye QB to throw a pass in the NFL?” (It used to be Dan McGwire, in 1995.)

The second quarterback development Stanley noticed was Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone. The Green Bay Packers star is likely to miss the rest of the season. Surely a bummer for a lifelong Wisconsin native like Stanley, right?

Not exactly. He’s actually a fan of the rival Chicago Bears. (His dad, Jay, grew up in Illinois.)

“Not saying that I wish injury on anybody,” Stanley said with a grin. “But maybe now the Bears will beat the Packers.”

Stanley also is an avid supporter of the Chicago Cubs.

So yeah, he’s had a life of catching flak back home in Menomonie, Wis.

“I get a lot of crap for being a Cubs fan,” Stanley said. “People just say I was a bandwagon fan from last year, but I’ve been a Cubs fan my whole life, Bears fan my whole life.”

Injury updates

Kirk Ferentz was non-committal about whether offensive lineman Boone Myers or cornerback Manny Rugamba would play Saturday at Northwestern.

"They're both back working, so we'll see," Ferentz said. "They're making progress."

The guess here is that both players would sit another week if they're not fully ready and an injury doesn't force them into the fold. Both are dealing with nagging lower-leg injuries and could ideally use an extra week to get closer to 100 percent.

Worth noticing

Ferentz pointed out Tuesday in his opening remarks that somebody told him the record of Iowa's opponents to date is 25-11.

That somebody was right.

"We've played a really competitive schedule," Ferentz noted.

Of Iowa's first six foes, only Illinois (2-4) has a losing record. Non-conference opponents Wyoming, Iowa State and North Texas are each 4-2 (each losing to Iowa); and neither Penn State (6-0) nor Michigan State (5-1) have lost a Big Ten game.