The return of James Butler: Fresh legs, balanced backfield and a big ol' brace
IOWA CITY, Ia. — James Butler has never been the rah-rah, speech-giving guy. At Iowa, at Nevada, at St. Francis High in Wheaton, Illinois — it doesn't matter. He said he learned early on not to speak up whenever he felt like it. Only when it was necessary.
Like this week.
Butler returned to the field after missing five games with a dislocated right elbow, rushing for 28 yards on 11 carries in Iowa’s 17-10 win against Minnesota.
He said he toyed with the idea of redshirting this now-truncated season — he could have played a full one as the No. 1 back next year. He said he thought long and hard about both options, which both had their own pros and cons.
But in a speech to his teammates Thursday, Butler said there was no way he wouldn’t finish the year with his guys.
"I could have sat out, but I want to play for this team," Butler said Saturday. "I love this class. I really feel like we can do something special here. And maybe it hasn't been what we believe it should be right now, but we can turn that around if we decide to.
"I feel fresh. Still getting used to getting handoffs and getting back to the offensive line. But my legs feel good. Probably the best a running back feels in Week 8, so the legs feel good."
To get a better understanding of Butler’s decision to come back, put yourself in his shoes:
He’d dreamed of playing as a Hawkeye his whole life, growing up three hours from campus. He graduated in just three years from Nevada and picked Iowa over Louisville and Indiana as a graduate transfer. He moved his whole life here for one dream-come-true season in Kinnick Stadium.
And then he was out, just two-and-a-half games in. His plans, derailed by an elbow that popped out of place against North Texas.
"It was hard," said Butler, who joked his swollen elbow looking more like a thigh for a while. "Obviously, the decision coming here was hard — and then finally getting here. And never being injured in my career, then (the) first injury comes here, senior year. That was tough. As an injured person, you kind of feel like you’re not part of the team — like, watching from the sidelines. You don't know if you’re getting back in or not.
"I’d love to come back and play the next year, but I worked so hard to get back and to help this team win and to finally be able to get back to 100 percent and play at a high level still."
And Iowa is lucky to have Butler back. His 28 yards won’t boggle the eyes, but his 11 carries are big for this team. Specifically, for Akrum Wadley, who had had to assume a workhorse role without Butler.
Wadley carried the ball 16 times for 73 yards, averaging 4.4 per rush in a balanced backfield against Minnesota.
His carry totals from Iowa’s past four games without Butler, in an unbalanced backfield: 26 against Northwestern (Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin had two each); 23 against Illinois (Young had eight); 17 against Michigan State (Kelly-Martin had one); and 19 against Penn State (Young and Kelly-Martin combined for zero).
"He bounced back. It was good to see him back," Wadley said.
Added head coach Kirk Ferentz: "For James to make it back... He was determined. There was some skepticism on our part, only because of the brace. But he was convinced he could do it. He looked good in practice this week — got his legs back underneath him a little bit. He's a first-class guy, high-energy guy, mentally tough guy. Gives us a little bit more leadership, because we're lacking that up front."
Butler and Ferentz finalized the decision for him to play on Friday. Butler had practiced all week. He said absorbing hits on his elbow without pain went a long way in making him confident for Saturday night.
The only cause for concern, like Ferentz said, was Butler’s arm brace. It’s a hulking thing — the same type Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots wears.
Would the brace keep Butler from carrying the ball in his right arm? Would it bother him while he ran?
The verdict: Nope.
Butler said his second-quarter fumble had nothing to do with the brace or his elbow. He just thought the play was going to be blown dead.
"A lot of people probably think it hinders me, but it’s not that bad," he said. "It’s actually more secure in my right than my left, I feel like, personally.
"I didn't feel any pain today, and I got hit a couple times. A couple guys tried to come after it with the brace on when I was holding it in my right. But, yeah, it takes all the hits. It actually delivers a hit more than I feel, to be honest."
Iowa will need Butler and his brace to deliver all the hits they can get next Saturday against Ohio State, which just beat Penn State 39-38 and will likely crack the top four when the College Football Playoff committee releases its first rankings Tuesday.
The Hawkeyes-Buckeyes game will kick at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN.
Matthew Bain covers preps, recruiting and the Hawkeyes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewBain_.