Well that was unexpected. Running back already looked like the strongest skill position on the Iowa offense, partly due to the lack of proven options at wide receiver and tight end, but mainly due to the return of the ever-explosive Akrum Wadley, one of the Big Ten's most exciting (and productive) returning running backs. The running back position got even stronger for Iowa thanks to a surprising grad transfer decision from Nevada running back James Butler:
Same book. Different chapter. pic.twitter.com/6gYqEsgjjg
— jb (@jamessbutler20) July 4, 2017
Butler, listed at 5'9", 210 lbs, completed his undergraduate degree at Nevada this summer and announced his decision to come to Iowa as a grad transfer today. Butler will be a senior in 2017 and as a grad transfer will be eligible to play for Iowa this year. Iowa hasn't been a big player in the grad transfer game -- before adding Ron Coluzzi from Central Michigan last year, I can't think of any other grad transfers that they've had -- but the addition of Coluzzi was a huge success last year and it's good to see Iowa pursing all avenues when it comes to adding talent to the roster.
So what is Iowa getting in Butler? A very, very productive running back -- he ran for 1300+ yards in 2015 and 2016 and was a preseason all-Mountain West Conference pick heading into his senior season. Butler averaged a sizzling 6.47 yards per carry as a sophomore in 2015 (1345 yards on 208 carries) and while his per carry average dropped a bit in 2016 to 5.14 (1336 yards on 260 carries), he made up for it by becoming a bigger receiving threat. He went from seven catches for 44 yards and no touchdowns to 37 catches for 381 yards and three touchdowns. That versatility is certainly nice to see, particularly for an Iowa team looking for weapons on offense.
Butler's decision to transfer to Iowa came a bit out of the blue -- we hadn't heard any whispers about the move, or even that Iowa was looking to add a grad transfer running back -- but it makes a little sense given some past ties to Iowa and the midwest. Butler is from Bloomingdale, IL and, as Tom Kakert noted at Hawkeye Report, Iowa pursued him as a recruit in 2014 (though I'm not sure if they ever ended up offering him a scholarship). Iowa ended up adding two running backs in its 2014 recruiting class, C.J. Hilliard and Markel Smith, neither of whom are still at Iowa (Iowa also added Marcel Joly in that class, who remains at Iowa and who switched from defensive back to running back early in his career). There was even an Iowa influence on Nevada's coaching staff while Butler was there -- Nevada was where former Iowa assistant coach Lester Erb landed (he was also involved in recruiting Butler, both at Iowa and then at Nevada). So the fact that Butler found his way back to the midwest -- and Iowa in particular -- probably shouldn't come as a huge surprise.
We'll have to wait until August to see where Butler fits into the depth chart at running back, but for now it's probably fair to slot him in at RB2, just behind Wadley. And while Wadley will be (and should be) the starter in 2017, he's probably not a 20-25+ carries per game back like you might see with a bigger feature back; there should be opportunities for other running backs (not to mention Iowa ran a highly successful running back rotation last year with Wadley and LeShun Daniels). At the very least, Butler gives Iowa an experienced and versatile weapon in the running game and the passing game, which is very welcome. His presence also means that Iowa's depth at running back behind Wadley isn't limited to a true sophomore (Toks Akinribade) and a redshirt freshman (Toren Young) with limited (or no) on-field experience. Butler also gives Iowa an insurance policy if durability concerns limit Wadley this fall. It's hard to see this move as anything but a win for Iowa.
Stylistically, Butler doesn't seem like a big shift from Wadley, if this stat from Pro Football Focus is any indication:
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
Which is fine by us. Watching Wadley juke defenders out of their cleats and break ankles was an absolute delight week in and week out last year, so adding another running back who can do that sounds wonderful. Butler also shows some nice explosiveness on this run:
You can check out more highlights of Butler in action below:
The big question for Butler will be whether he can successfully adjust from running against Mountain West defenses to Big Ten defenses. We'll have to wait to find out the answer to that question; before that, he'll get one last hurrah against a Mountain West defense when Iowa faces Wyoming in the season opener on September 2nd. Seeing Butler's Iowa debut is yet another reason to get excited for that game. In the meantime, welcome aboard, Mr. Butler.