Darius Butler: Ready for Prime Time
According to a USA Football study published in September, 2008, only California produces more NFL talent than Florida -- 214 to 185 players at the time, and probably not so different now. Only Texas can compare, with 170. The good news for Florida kids is that the scouts are well aware of the hot spots. The bad news is that some great talents get overlooked and have to travel out of state to get what they want out of a college football program. This is what happened to Darius Butler, the native of Fort Lauderdale who emigrated to the University of Connecticut when he was shunned locally.
"I was probably overlooked because I was so small coming out of high school," Butler told me when we spoke on the 7th. "I played quarterback and safety, and I was light, coming out at 165 pounds. More than anything, it was growing up in the area of South Florida -- there are so many [talented athletes], it's hard to find all the good ones.
But Otis Mounds, Butler's coach at Coral Springs Charter, had a connection up north -- UConn running backs coach Terry Richardson, who played high school ball with Mounds. Mounds and Richardson talked about and to Butler about the next step from his junior year, and after graduation, UConn was the best option.
Butler doesn't regret the choice at all, but the snubs rankled for a long time. "Coming out of high school, it put a chip on my shoulder," he said, when asked if he felt he had something to prove. "But now, I'm over it. Coming out, though, it was definitely a driving force -- it lit a fire under my butt."
One advantage he does have is family in the business -- his uncle, Gene Atkins, played defensive back for the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins, putting in a 10-year NFL career. Butler's cousin? Baltimore Ravens star running back Willis McGahee. And it helps to navigate the vagaries of the football life when you can talk to those who have done it before. "I haven't talked to Gene in a while, but I talk to Willis a lot. He just says, 'Stay focused, and control what you can control. Everything else will take care of itself.'"
Butler wasn't going to wait around for anything when he got to Connecticut -- he hit the ground running. "It was a natural thing," he said of a leadership role that had his teammates voting him captain in his last two seasons. "Coming in, I started from day one as a redshirt freshman. I learned the ropes, learned my business, and played well as a freshman. I was the kind of guy who wouldn't say a lot, just playing hard and making plays. So, people looked at me for those reasons.
"Once my junior year came around, we were coming off a disappointing season, and I took it upon myself to take more of a leadership role. I always played hard on the field, but off the field, in my workouts, getting the guys together, doing 7-on-7, watching film, all those things -- [being a leader is] what I've done my whole life. I have six younger siblings, so I always had little people looking up to me. I've found that leading by example is the most important way."
Butler played his college ball at 5-10 and 185 pounds. He's known as a ballhawk to a point, though his interception totals decreased from four in each of his first two seasons, to two in his junior year, to none in 2008. However, stats for defensive backs can be tough to read, because there are times when teams have one elite player, and opposing quarterbacks can simply avoid targeting him. Was that the case for Butler?
"Oh, definitely," he said. "I had 10 career interceptions, but it kept going down. I'm not surprised... in my junior year, I had another pretty good cornerback alongside me -- Tyvon Branch, who was drafted by the Raiders [in the fourth round in 2008]. But in my senior year, I didn't get too many balls. We had a true sophomore starting alongside me, so he got a lot of action. I also missed three games in my senior year with an MCL sprain." Butler's knee checked out fine at the Combine medical tests.
And he's not just a defender. Butler has been utilized as a receiver and in the occasional option play where he scored a rushing touchdown against Virginia last season, and caught eight passes for 107 yards and another touchdown. "They'd bring me in the slot, where I'd run... I mean the package was mostly third down and red zone. It was only in a few games, like against Louisville, when I played more because we needed more players in the passing game. We had to come back in that one. I played all three receiver positions - the Z, the X, and the W."
But what will make Butler at the next level is his skills in the defensive backfield, and one attribute he brings is a versatility between man-in-man and zone coverages. " I can play zone effectively, but if I had to choose one, I would choose man-to-man," he said, when asked what he preferred. "We played a lot of Quarters coverage [where the defense splits the deep coverage into fourths]. We played man, but I would say it was a softer man. We would have underneath help, and some different inside help. Mostly Quarters and some Cover-2. We'd mix it up; man off, safety in the box, corner plays a level and the safety plays a half, like Cover-2. We played it a variety of different ways."
Some analysts think that Butler's size is will be an impediment to covering and tackling at the NFL level, but he doesn't agree. "I play taller than people think -- I'm 5-10 and 3/8. You wouldn't think I was that tall when you see me on the field, but I have long legs and long arms. When I'm on the field, I play bigger than I am, you could say. My vertical helps me to do even more to make plays than the normal 5-10 cornerbacks. My basketball background helps a lot. It will really help a lot with the bigger receivers at the next level (Click here to see a YouTube video of Darius dunking above the rim).
"I think I'm among the best tackling corners -- I think the film pretty much speaks for itself when it comes to that. I'm around 185, which is a typical weight for a cornerback in the NFL, and I think the most important thing for corners is to be able to turn and run. Good hands, good feet -- those things translate more to the next level, because you can't really touch a [receiver] after five yards. But I don't question my physicality or my size -- that's never been an issue for me."
When you put Butler's skill set together, it's not surprising that a lot of people are looking at him as a definite first-day pick. But one expert saw a bit more -- Deion Sanders, perhaps the best cover cornerback in NFL history, called Scott Lakatos, Butler's position coach, halfway through Butler's senior season. "I called him back as soon as I could," Butler said. "We kept in touch through the rest of my senior season".
This led to Butler accepting an invitation to train for the 2009 Scouting Combine with Sanders, personal trainer Dean Rousse, and fellow advisors and ex-cornerbacks Kevin Mathis and Omar Stoutmire in Carrollton, Texas. The experience, seen in the NFL Network documentary "Prime U", is one that Butler won't soon forget.
"Just how to handle myself as a professional -- that was the most important thing I learned from [Sanders]. A lot of things off the field, when it comes to your money, what to look out for. Obviously, the football was important, too. I learned a huge amount...
"We went out other places, outside of football. Just to relax. We went to Deion's house, went to Omar Stoutmire's house. We went to church together, had a lot of speakers come in and talk about different things, as far as how our lives were changing. It was a pretty good experience all around."
Was it weird to have that many cameras around? "Not really, it was cool. It wasn't the first time I'd seen myself on T.V. or anything, but you see a lot of those reality shows... after the cameras are there for a certain amount of time, you're just being yourself. It was pretty funny to see some of the things I was doing," like when he said that he'd do fifty sets of two bench presses each. "I always joke around when it comes to that bench press."
Butler didn't bench at the Combine, though he will at his Pro Day on March 25. He did do everything else, and his 4.41 40-yard dash and 43-inch vertical leap both pointed to a combination of speed and leaping ability that may be unmatched in this draft.
"Just how long those days are," he said, when asked what surprised him about the Combine experience. "Everyone told me that the days would be super-long, but just experiencing that -- getting up a 5:00 in the morning, doing all the medicals. The medicals are the toughest part of the Combine. You're waiting all that time, and on the last day, you finally get to the physical activity. It's a long, drawn-out process."
For now, it's time to work on his Pro Day prep, and less than two months to get ready for the next phase of his life. Butler doesn't lack for confidence, though -- he's been through enough and proven enough to be ready for the NFL. And what will the team that selects him get in a person and player?
"They're going to get a guy who comes to work every day and looks to go beyond his goals. They're going to get someone who comes in there to be a leader, to be a professional. I'm just going to come in and put my best foot forward every day."
The Expert's Take
Butler has the athletic ability to consider using on offense or as a returner on special teams, but his value lies on the defensive side of the ball. Athletic enough for man and yet well versed in zone coverage due to Connecticut's reliance on this coverage throughout much of his career, Butler is among the more versatile cornerbacks in the draft. He has the anticipation, explosive burst back to the ball and size to translate into a zone coverage scheme at the NFL level, and really opened eyes at the Senior Bowl with his agility for man coverage and at Combine with his eye-popping overall athleticism.
Butler doesn't have the big name of a Malcolm Jenkins, Vontae Davis or Alphonso Smith, but the four year starter, two year captain may be as sure a prospect as any of them.
X-and-O Show: "The Z Reverse"
At 1:00 into this video, you'll see the reverse that Darius describes below:
Against Virginia, I think that was just called a Z-Reverse. It was a three-receiver set, stacked formation. They faked the toss to (running back) Donald Brown and handed it off to me to the left. I kinda ran around the defense, broke contain, cut back on the safety, and went into the end zone.
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