As he enters his senior season, some have forgotten Devin Butler. That should be hard to do, considering the amount of football he has played. Notre Dame’s rising senior cornerback has seen the field in 37 games, missing just two in his three seasons in South Bend.
Of course, Butler’s time has been sporadic. Bit roles, special teams work, and some mop-up duty were more the norm than his three career starts. Butler’s chance in 2015 came after KeiVarae Russell went down against Boston College and Butler started against Stanford. Yet Butler was injured in Arizona in the days leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, a foot injury robbing him of another potential start against Ohio State.
Nick Watkins got the call against the Buckeyes, playing well when given the opportunity. Shaun Crawford looked to make up for lost time this spring, competing even as he recovered from his August ACL tear. That duo—not to mention the other inflow of young talent like Nick Coleman and Ashton White—will compete with Butler as he tries to win a starting job opposite Cole Luke.
6'.5", 200 lbs.
Senior, No. 12, DB
Butler was a Bob Diaco recruit, a good physical fit for the Cover 2 scheme Notre Dame’s former defensive coordinator deployed. There were questions about his speed even then, but Butler chose Notre Dame over some solid offers, with Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin all chasing the Washington, D.C. native.
Freshman Season (2013): Played in 12 games, missing only Purdue. Made five tackles and broke up a pass against Pitt. Also appeared on special teams.
Sophomore Season (2014): Played in all 13 games, starting against Arizona State and USC. He made 23 tackles—seven against USC alone—forced a fumbled in the season opener and made an interception a week later against Purdue.
Junior Season (2015): Played in 12 games, earning a start against Stanford. Made 11 tackles, broke up two passes and recovered a fumble against Navy. Played a season-high 46 snaps against the Cardinal, broke 20 snaps against Texas, Virginia and UMass.
WHAT WE SAID LAST YEARI could probably copy and paste this below and not do much better.
I see a lot of special teams in Butler’s future. He is a good tackler and has the type of stretch speed that’s needed on cover teams. It’s also not fair to write him off as a cornerback, plenty of young backups get beaten deep by talented players.
But Butler needs to take a step forward mentally, especially if he’s unable to run stride for stride with top-end wide receivers. You can’t teach his length and the Irish could use a long cornerback, especially after Russell leaves for the NFL after 2015.
There’s been talk of mixing Butler into the safety mix. And while the secondary doesn’t have many free safety types, I’d have to see more from Butler to project him being able to make it into the mix, though there seem to be a lot of strong safety types, and that’s not Butler’s game.
As we look at the evolution of Notre Dame’s secondary, seniors like Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson became forgotten men, playing out their eligibility mostly as practice players. I think Butler’s going to be much more productive than that, though he’ll need to continue refining his game to keep up with top-flight starters in Russell and Cole Luke and the young kids recruited by VanGorder.
I don’t think Butler’s athleticism allows him to be the answer at cornerback. While he’s got length and solid ball skills, asking him to cover in space has proven to be a challenge. While he’ll certainly have the ability to improve the technique issues that have led to some problems, there’s not much you can do when you’re a step slower than the guy you’re asked to cover, and that feels like Butler’s matchup when he goes one-on-one with a talented receiver.
That said, Butler could have a place in this defense. Brian Kelly spent last fall camp talking about how Butler won the outside cornerback job on third downs and nickel when they wanted to slide KeiVarae Russell inside, but then proceeded to never play nickel until they had Torii Hunter ready to help for a half-dozen snaps. With Shaun Crawford back and other young cornerbacks ascending, this problem seemed to be among the first that needed solving for the Irish staff.
Is a move to safety possible? Sure, but no more than in years past, and now there’s a handful of young freshmen competing there, too. Matthias Farley’s departure leaves a special teams unit to anchor. That might be the perfect place for Butler, who has shown a knack for the third phase of the football game.
If everybody stays healthy, I think Butler’s role is that of a special teams regular, making one or two big plays throughout the season that help impact a ball game. But he’s at best a dime back with the Irish’s upgraded skill-set in the secondary, though that’s certainly not a declaration I’d put in stone, especially with guys like Crawford, Coleman and Watkins still needing to prove they can play.
Unlike some of the other veterans who had been marooned on the bench, Butler’s role in the secondary—and in the program—seems on solid footing. That’ll allow him to mentor some of the younger players coming up, even if they’ve already passed him on the depth chart.
But if injuries hit, Butler seems like the type of program player who’ll be ready if needed. And that ultimately says quite a bit about where Brian Kelly has things entering 2016.