IOWA CITY, Iowa – The situation could have been uncomfortable. Credit Akrum Wadley and James Butler for making sure it wasn’t.
Wadley turned down the NFL and returned to Iowa for his senior season. The running back from New Jersey led the team in rushing (1,081 yards) last year and was expected to shoulder a big work load with backfield mate LeShun Daniels exhausting his eligibility last fall.
Early this summer, coach Kirk Ferentz informed Wadley that the Hawkeyes were adding Nevada graduate transfer James Butler, who ran for more than 1,300 yards in each of the last two seasons. Wadley again was involved in a timeshare. Not a negative word has been spoken publicly about the setup.
“It’s been really good,” Butler said of his relationship with Wadley. “He helps me out a lot with the offense and just showing me around. We’ve hung out a few times. I feel like we really hit it off on a good foot.”
The Hawkeye video team released a piece Tuesday morning that showed how well they’re bonding.
— Hawkeye Football (@HawkeyeFootball) August 8, 2017
Wadley and Butler agree that they’re good for each other. More importantly to them, having two proven backs increases the chance of team success. Throw in second-year players Toren Young and Toks Akinribade, and you have an impressive stable.
“I feel like all the backs complement each other. Toren Young is a big, strong kid. Toks can make you miss, he can outrun you and he’s a big guy. And Ak makes moves that I’ve never seen before. I really feel like we can all bounce off each other and learn from each other. Competition is only going to make all of us better,” Butler said.
Butler (5-9, 210) arrived with the right attitude to fit into Iowa’s blue-collar culture. The Chicago-area product wasn’t looking for handouts based on his resume. He wasn’t put off by not being on the depth chart, instead wanting to earn his place on it by what he showed in camp and beyond.
“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,” Ferentz said.
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The coach had a history with Butler, who visited campus as a high school recruit. Likewise, Butler knew what the Hawkeyes were about.
Butler welcomed the disciplined approach at Iowa. He learned to appreciate it while being coached at his position for his first two years at Nevada by Lester Erb, who was a Hawkeye assistant for 13 years (’00-12). There were no surprises when Butler showed up this summer.
“I knew how Coach Erb coached me my freshman and sophomore years. It was stern, but I felt like I learned the most from Coach Erb in those two years since I’ve been playing football. So, I knew that he enjoyed coaching here. I knew that if he was here, that I would be able to come here and hopefully have success. What’s expected of you you’re not going to get complimented for,” Butler said.
Butler considered joining Erb at Rutgers, where he was hired this offseason as the program’s running backs coach. However, that would have gone against one of his main goals in transferring.
“I looked into Rutgers but I was trying to come closer to home. I just really tried to focus on that. My mom (Cornelia William) is my biggest advocate. She was really all for it,” he said.
Still, it might have made more sense moving to a program with less running back depth. Wadley was established. Akinribade played as a true freshman in ’16. Young looked the part of taking over Daniels’ role as the power back. Instead, the situation appealed to Butler.
Butler has become accustomed to sharing the workload at Nevada. Last year, he was set to split carries with Penn State transfer Akeel Lynch before the latter lost the second half of his season to injury. Still, he shared the job with true freshman Jaxson Kincaide.
As a sophomore, Don Jackson, a senior, out-carried Butler, 230-207. He then signed as a free agent with the Green Bay Packers. Butler ranked third on the team in rushing with 635 yards on 140 carries as a true freshman.
The game is moving away from the feature back systems of the past. Butler believes that’s the way to go.
“A lot of people don’t realize that I’ve been in multiple situations where there’s been great guys right next to me and that’s only benefitted the team. That’s really what it’s all about,” he said.
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“The game is just violent. These strength programs are getting their kids bigger and faster. It’s tough to go out there and have the ball 39 times. It’s really mentally draining and physically draining. That’s really where the game is going, running back by committee.”
Butler long has dreamed of playing at Iowa, a program he loved during his high school recruiting process. It didn’t come together back then.
Butler’s recruitment took a huge hit when he transferred from Bartlett (IL) High to Wheaton (IL) Saint Francis. The Illinois High School Association ruled him ineligible before the start of his junior season because of the move. That hurt his recruiting stock.
“I knew that I was rolling the dice when I decided to leave (Bartlett) and I realized I wasn’t going to play. Obviously, not getting an offer from here hurt. Not getting an offer from any Power 5 hurt,” he said.
The snubs motivated him, not only on the field but off of it. In addition to rolling up 3,313 rushing yards, he twice earned all-Mountain West academic honors. He graduated with a Communications degree with a minor in Business in three years.
“That’s what I forget all the time. Through this whole process, things were crazy, but I got a degree. I went to school with guys who have been there five years and are still working on a degree or normal students that take six years to get a degree. I was able to get that in three while being able to play football,” said Butler, who will study Sports Management at Iowa.
That focus on accomplishment makes Butler a good fit at his new home.
“Things are very stern here. That’s how they win so much. Now I understand. Being a fan, you don’t really see that. But coming here and seeing Coach (Chris) Doyle’s workouts, how they handle things, coach Ferentz, how he treats his players and his staff. You can see it’s very detail oriented and family like,” he said.