By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – James Butler enjoyed his experience as a football ball player at Nevada, both on and off the field.
He graduated in three years with a grade-point average above 3.0 and he rushed for over 3,000 career yards in three seasons.
The previous coaching staff at Nevada believed in Butler enough to offer him a scholarship in high school and he repaid them by excelling as a student-athlete.
But despite all of his success, Butler still couldn’t get the Iowa Hawkeyes off his mind.
He grew up in Illinois and wanted to play for Iowa directly out of high school, but wasn’t offered a scholarship.
So Butler took what he considered the next best opportunity and signed with Nevada, but without giving up on his dream of being a Hawkeye.
He knew if he proved himself at Nevada and graduated in three years that he might have a chance to fulfill a dream by transferring to Iowa as graduate student, and that’s exactly what happened.
“After the season I looked at the credits I still had left and I realized that if I pushed hard in the spring that I would be able to graduate in three years,” Butler said Saturday at Iowa’s annual media day event. “That was probably my best bet. So I was like I might as well give myself that option, because at that time, I wasn’t planning on leaving. But you never know. I was just wanting to give myself the option to be able to leave if I wanted to.”
Butler had established roots in Nevada and made friends that will be a part of his life forever.
So it wasn’t easy telling Nevada head coach Jay Norvell or his teammates that he planned to play his senior season elsewhere.
Norvell, a former Hawkeye defensive back, is entering his first season as the Nevada head coach. So he never even had the opportunity to coach Butler in a game.
“It was tough telling him, but it was most hard leaving my teammates behind,” Butler said. “Those guys that I’ve built relationships with. Those guys will be at my wedding one day and are still my best friends and I still talk to them all the time.”
The opportunity to be a Hawkeye and to play in the Big Ten for a team that relies heavily on running the football and to be closer to his family in Illinois made Iowa too good to pass up.
Butler joins an Iowa team that already has a celebrated senior running back in Akrum Wadley. It’s not clear how the Iowa coaches plan to use both running backs, but Butler made one thing clear at media day.
“I’m not a big, you know I’m here to take a spot kind of guy,” Butler said. “I’m a team guy. So I came here for the betterment of the team.”
His new team needs him, even with Wadley on the roster.
It isn’t often that a running back with over 3,000 career rushing yards and grades to match comes knocking on your door.
“Everything about it since we got the release has been very impressive,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Butler. “He did a tremendous job academically at Nevada. Not only graduating in three years' time, but also violating the Buckley Amendment. He's got a 3.12 grade point. So this guy's really been on task academically.
“His statistics in football are impressive. But certainly to have him here on campus and have an opportunity to work with him, 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.”
There should be enough room and opportunities for Butler and Wadley both to shine. And they both also should benefit from the competition.
Both players are explosive, elusive and versatile. One of them or both also double as a return specialist.
They both said Saturday that they wanted to return punts and kicks.
“I’m trying out for those spots, so we’ll see how it goes,” said 5-foot-9, 210-pound Butler.
Butler didn’t make any bold predictions while talking with reporters on Saturday. He was humble and appreciative and just trying to fit in.
His presence could be a distraction and cause some hard feelings. But Butler seems aware of that by his modest approach.
“I’m a team-oriented person,” Butler said. “I’m not trying to come in here and think since I’ve run for a bunch of yards at another place in college football that it means anything because I know football is game, what can you do for me now?
“I’m coming here with a fresh slate and I understand my role. And I’m just trying to earn a spot like any other man on the team, like even if I was a freshman coming in.”
Butler said he also considered transferring to Indiana and Louisville, but the pull from Iowa was too strong.
Butler hasn’t returned punts or kicks since high school, so in some ways, he is learning to do it all over again.
“Hopefully, it’s like a riding a bike,” Butler said.
Butler has joined an Iowa program in transition with Brian Ferentz having replaced Greg Davis as the offensive coordinator shortly after last season.
Iowa doesn’t usually play two running backs at the same time, instead preferring to use a fullback. But that could change with Butler and Wadley on the roster and with Brian Ferentz running the offense.
Butler was asked on Saturday if he expects to be on the field with Wadley, who led Iowa with 1,081 rushing yards last season.
He and Wadley both also caught more than 30 passes for their team last season.
“Whatever the coaches really have in the game plan, I’m not sure yet,” Butler said. “I’m still trying to learn my role as it is. I’m still trying to get the playbook down as much as I possibly can.
“So that’s what I’m really focusing on right now, not how many passes I can catch or rushing yards I can get. I’m really just trying to focus on trying to learn the ins and outs of the offense.”