College football fans rarely get good news in July.
Usually, if your team is making headlines on Fourth of July, it’s not good. Arrests, suspensions and transfers tend to dominate the college football news cycle in July.
Nevada got some bad news on Tuesday. The Wolf Pack found out that their preseason first-team All-Mountain West tailback wouldn’t be back in 2017.
But for Iowa, the addition of James Butler was a rare dose of GREAT July news.
The Hawkeyes added a graduate transfer tailback that racked up at least 1,300 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns each of the last two seasons. Iowa got one of the most productive backs in the country to complement Akrum Wadley.
Compare that to Iowa’s second-leading returning rusher, Toks Akinribade, who had 16 carries for 33 yards in 2016.
The Hawkeyes now have a backfield combination that could the B1G’s best. How good can Iowa’s new 1-2 punch be? To form an educated opinion about that, let’s find out a little more about Butler.
1. Butler is not your typical grad transfer
Usually, a graduate transfer is a guy looking to play more in his final season of eligibility. For one reason or another, guys don’t feel like they have a path to regular snaps in their current situation.
Iowa fans remember the circumstances surrounding Jake Rudock’s departure in 2015. C.J. Beathard was the starter and Rudock wasn’t getting any closer to the NFL by holding a clipboard as a backup.
That wasn’t the case with Butler.
Nevada’s 2016 MVP would’ve still been the big man on campus. At Iowa, he’ll obviously have to share carries with Wadley.
And Butler might not have done his damage at a Power Five school, but he already has next-level attention.
Dear Iowa football fans:
James Butler is an NFL-caliber RB.
— Jordan Plocher (@PFF_Jordan) July 5, 2017
So yeah, that’s saying a lot. That should quiet any concerns about his production at a smaller school. If he’s used as many expect him to be used in Iowa City, the same things will be said about Butler ahead of the NFL draft.
Speaking of his usage, let’s talk about that.
2. What could Iowa have planned for Butler?
Before we dig into how Butler will be used, let’s squash any concerns about how often he’ll be used.
Wadley and LeShun Daniels, Jr. each eclipsed 1,000 yards and had 10 rushing touchdowns in 2016. They both got 200-plus touches from scrimmage, which is an average just north of 15 per game.
And let’s be honest. It’s Iowa. Kirk Ferentz will become a social media star before he takes carries away from his tailbacks.
Don’t hold your breath on that.
The more interesting question is how Butler will be used. He actually has similar strengths as Wadley. Both are shifty, explosive backs that won’t be confused for Mark Weisman anytime soon.
Wadley is expected to open the season at 195 pounds, which is less than the 210 pounds Butler is listed at. Butler can juke his way out of trouble before the line of scrimmage and operate between the tackles. He can also get into the second level and break off long runs. Sounds like Wadley, right?
But unlike Wadley, a lot of Butler’s big runs came out of the pistol:
Butler can operate in a zone-read system, which is obviously different than what we usually see from Iowa. The Hawkeyes don’t often run out of the shotgun the way a team like Indiana, Ohio State or Nevada does.
Perhaps we see Brian Ferentz try the read-option or triple option on a rare occasion, considering Butler can do it and it would be something extra to game plan for.
That’s the interesting thing about Butler. He can give Iowa some different formations than the typical sets we’ve grown accustomed to seeing.
3. Butler can catch, too
Iowa undoubtedly will use Butler in the passing game. He finished with 37 catches for 381 yards in 2016 — Wadley had 36 catches for 315 yards — both of which were career highs. Considering Wadley is Iowa’s leading returning receiver — it would’ve been Matt VandeBerg if he was healthy — the Hawkeyes will take any proven pass-catcher they can get.
Also keep in mind that Iowa will have a first-time starter at quarterback. Tailbacks that can catch like Wadley and Butler can be key safety valves. Whether it’s swing passes, screens or check downs, Butler will get plenty of run in the passing game.
He can make people miss, no matter how his touches come:
Not one returning RB in the FBS forced more missed tackles on both runs and receptions last season than Nevada's James Butler. pic.twitter.com/2gAiU2xMgv
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) June 18, 2017
That’s good news for Wadley’s long-term durability. Rotating in Butler for series at a time, and not just for third downs, will keep Wadley fresher than he would’ve been if he was the only reliable tailback.
The real question is whether or not Butler will be able to block B1G pass-rushers. Bigger, faster, stronger defensive lines will be a test for Butler. At 5-9, he won’t blow people up. He just has to not be a liability.
The more interchangeably Iowa can use Wadley and Butler without giving away their intentions, the better.
4. So why leave Nevada for Iowa, and why now?
Tailbacks with Butler’s track record don’t often transfer, especially not in July. There were a few factors that explained Butler’s decision.
A big reason had to be Nevada’s switch to the Air Raid offense. After he initially decided to stay, Butler changed his mind. Air Raid offenses aren’t exactly ideal for running backs trying to make the NFL. In all likelihood, Butler’s numbers would’ve dipped as a senior. The NFL isn’t crazy about senior running backs “on the decline,” especially those that don’t play in pro-style offenses.
Iowa’s offensive approach is obviously much different than that. There’s a chance that even as Wadley’s backup, he could still get more carries than he would’ve if he stayed at Nevada.
There’s also the family factor. Butler is a Bloomingdale, Ill. native (just outside of Chicago) who wanted to play closer to home. His family is now a three-hour drive from Iowa City. They’re now in driving distance to virtually every B1G West foe outside of Nebraska (that’s about eight hours).
After hearing his story, it’s hard to imagine Butler’s family made a bunch of flights to Mountain West country:
Butler had hopes of attending a B1G school after he was an Illinois all-state tailback as a senior. Unfortunately, the nation’s No. 91 running back didn’t have any Power Five offers.
So what did Butler do? He went to Nevada, where he racked up over 3,000 yards rushing and earned a degree in three years. Three years later, Iowa likely had to fend off a bunch of B1G teams to land Butler.
How do you like me now?
5. Does Iowa now have B1G’s best 1-2 punch?
That’s definitely possible. Consider this. Iowa is not just the only B1G team to return multiple 1,000-yard backs. No other Power Five team in America returns two players that had 1,000 yards rushing in 2016.
That has NFL draft scouts’ attention:
James Butler to Iowa gives the Hawkeyes are killer duo in the backfield. That run game could be one of the nation's best.
— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) July 5, 2017
It’s not crazy to predict both Butler and Wadley to repeat as 1,000-yard backs. It’s no secret Iowa is going to emphasize the run, perhaps more than any B1G team. If you factor in the pass-catching ability, the Hawkeye duo could easily rack up more yards from scrimmage than any in the conference.
There’s still plenty of competition in the B1G.
Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders are certainly as talented as any duo in the country. Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith can both do some serious damage if both can stay healthy at the same time. And don’t sleep on Maryland and Northwestern, both of whom have explosive change-of-pace options returning behind 1,000-yard rushers.
None of those backfield duos have track records that rival Butler and Wadley. That won’t guarantee complete dominance. Iowa might not need Butler to become the B1G’s best backup in order to win the West, though it would certainly be a start.
With Butler, there’s still a gap between Iowa and Wisconsin. But the Hawkeyes certainly narrowed it on Independence Day.