BOGACZYK: Butler Adds Patience, Resilience to His Burst
The Word on the Herd-April 21, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Steward Butler has a shot at a Marshall career rushing record. His 7.0 yards-per-carry average is as half-yard better than the 1993-96 mark belonging to Erik Thomas.
Then, Butler's teammate and fellow senior running back, Devon Johnson, could even top Butler. After a 1,767-yard season in 2014, Johnson is averaging 8.4 per career rush.
But there's one record in which no one is going to catch Butler. It's much like when Butler uses his 4.3 speed to get past linebackers and through the secondary.
The 5-foot-9 back has 2,063 rushing yards in three seasons ... and one start. An average of 2,063.0 yards per start? Not bad.
Let that sink in.
Butler ranks 13th in Herd history in career rushing yards, with one start in three years -- last season's Conference USA title game, when a knee and shoulder limited Johnson. If the Lakeland, Fla., native does what he wants -- and Herd running backs coach Chris Barclay believes is possible -- this season, Butler could become the school's fifth 3,000-yard rusher.
It could have turned out very different, especially after the start of camp last August, when Herd Coach Doc Holliday and his offensive staff moved Johnson from tight end to running back -- and ahead of Butler, who appeared to be the potential starter.
Johnson took the ball and ran ... and ran ... and ran.
"It was tough for Stew," Barclay said, as the Herd points toward Saturday's Green and White Game at Edwards Stadium. "I mean, it's always tough when you're in a one-back system, when one guy's on the field all the time and you're not that guy.
"The season Devon had last year, I think Stew and Remi (Watson, fellow senior), about halfway through the season, those two were, `Whoa, this kid's really having a phenomenal season.' It's no secret he was having a productive season, and `Rock' (Johnson) brings something to the table those other kids don't.
"But over this offseason, they really focused on their roles and they know Rock is going to be the feature guy. He's got to be the feature, but they're OK being that change of pace coming in. Rock beats them up (at 6-2, 242 pounds) and then Stew comes in and they have to find where he is. He splits defenses and goes 70."
Butler's time with the Herd has been one that had included its share of tumult. Told he'd been in Holliday's doghouse so often in past year that his nickname might be "Fido," Butler grinned and nodded his head. Then, Johnson's move was heaped on top of that.
"You can't just resign yourself," Butler said. "It changed for me maybe about the end of the season last year. I buckled down and realized it was coming to an end soon and so I've got to tighten up. I've got to be more mature.
"I'm trying to do everything I can, but I'm trying to focus on being a leader. For me, pass protection is most important (as Holliday cited when he moved Johnson last season). Being a better leader and doing it vocally is important.
"I know my role. Everybody wants to play. It's important I just take advantage of it when I get the opportunity, and then do my best -- you know, to help the team. Sometimes I don't get a lot of chances, but when I do, I've got to take advantage of them."
Holliday and Barclay really like what they've seen from Butler in spring drills, where the surgery-rehabbing limitations and absence of Johnson and Watson have presented Butler with many more reps.
"Stew's playing his best football right now," Holliday said after the Herd's April 18 controlled scrimmage, in which he carried 14 times for 102 yards and two touchdowns. "He's more physical than he's ever been. He's bigger than he's ever been.
"Around here, for the last few years that we've had good football teams, our seniors played their best football. That's kind of what's happening with him right now. He's got to be one of those seniors who plays his best."
Butler had boosted his weight to 192 and added strength. Barclay, the Herd's second-year running backs coach, said there's another change that could be significant for the Herd and the fleet Floridian.
"It's Stew's patience," Barclay said. "He has a feel about him right now that we haven't seen from him, from what I'm hearing from Coach (Bill) Legg (offensive coordinator) and other coaches that have been here longer than me. The patience he's been displaying is phenomenal.
"If you take a look, a lot of his runs are cutback ... his big plays are cutbacks. But now, a lot of his big runs are right out the front door, so Stew's showing he's being a lot more patient with his eyes and his blocks, and his pass protection has really improved -- significantly -- and that's heartwarming to see.
"He's just playing the game a lot faster on top."
Butler said that although he's added "10-12 good pounds," he feels like his speed hasn't diminished "not from what the other guys (teammates)" tell him.
"That's my game," Butler said when asked if he still feels that once he's cleared the linebackers he has a chance for going ... going ... gone. "But Coach Barclay is right; I have tried to be more patient and keep trying.
"I'm usually in a rush and don't get my blocks set up, but I'm more mature now -- learned more how to play instead of just using my speed. What I try to do is key in on a sight for a place to go instead of trying to cut everything back and hit a home run."
Butler has eight rushes of 50 or more yards in a Herd uniform, and 15 trips of 30 or more yards. He's the only rusher in Marshall history with two runs of at least 72 yards (83 last season at Southern Miss; 72 in 2013 at FIU).
He ran for 798 yards last season -- 33 more than in 2013 -- after a 500-yard redshirt freshman year in 2012.
"Stew having 2,063 (yards) is kind of amazing," Barclay said. "I didn't realize he had that many in his career. That's special. At the end of last season, I looked it up, and Devon rushed for more than 1,700 (1,767) and I look and see Stew had almost 800.
"I think, `Wow, that's a quiet 800.' His runs are big plays. He averages about 8 yards per carry (8.1 in the last two seasons), so he's very efficient when he's in the ballgame. I think he'll get more productive this season because a lot of the runs he had last year were just not disciplined. They were just raw talent.
"Now that he's seeing things correctly and he understands the concepts a little better, I think he can rush for 1,000 yards or so this season."
Butler only averaged nine carries per game last season. And while he netted 798 yards on 107 tries in his 12 appearances, he lost only 6 yards in those 107 carries.
"My goal this season is maybe go to 1,000 yards this year," Butler said. "Maybe get to start a few games ... maybe get to play in the first half more and not having to come off the bench really late. I want just a good opportunity for my last year. I want to go out with a bang."
Butler, 23, wants to go out with something else. After arriving at Marshall in 2011 as an academic non-qualifier, he's on schedule to graduate with a bachelor's degree in health sciences this December.
So ... 4 1/2 years at Marshall ... a diploma ... maybe 3,000 yards?
"Three thousand would be great," he said. "But graduating, I'm prouder of that. I've got to graduate. That ... that would just feel great."