With KeiVarae Russell suspended and Cody Riggs hurt, Devin Butler got his chance to be a starting cornerback. It wasn’t necessarily a positive experience.
Butler’s move to the starting lineup coincided with the implosion of an injury-riddled defense. And while it’s unfair to peg any of the major struggles on the sophomore cornerback doing his best, it also was hard to overlook opposing wide receivers getting behind Butler for big gains—especially in the Coliseum.
Battling with rising sophomore Nick Watkins this spring, Butler ended up behind the young cornerback on a depth chart that’ll feature KeiVarae Russell come August. So as Butler begins his third season in South Bend, the lanky defensive back needs to retool his game to stay in the mix.
Let’s take a closer look at the Washington, D.C. native.
6’0.5″, 195 lbs.
Junior, No. 12, CB
Butler looked like a perfect fit in Bob Diaco’s Cover 2 scheme. And while his speed was in question—Rivals reported a 4.6 forty—his length and athleticism had a lot of good programs chasing after him.
Butler chose Notre Dame over Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin, joining an Irish secondary that needed to add bodies.
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.
WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR
Pretty spot on. And even KeiVarae Russell’s absence didn’t move him in front of Cole Luke or Cody Riggs.
It’s hard to see Butler moving into the starting lineup until KeiVarae Russell is gone. That could be after 2014, if we’re to believe that Russell is ready to be the elite defender some think he already is. (I tend to think the truth is somewhere in the middle with Russell, who is coming off a great game against Rutgers but still has game tape where Jeremy Gallon’s cleat marks are up and down his back.)
How good is Butler? We will see as the youth and talent continues to accumulate on this roster. Right now, he’s behind Cole Luke and Cody Riggs. But there’s a place for him now in sub-packages and you can never have enough healthy corners, and Butler’s going to use this summer to make up for lost time this spring.
With Butler’s length, he gives Brian VanGorder a traditional cornerback prospect. That never goes out of style and for that reason alone he’s the type of athletic, long cover man that all football teams covet.
Butler’s length didn’t necessarily help him in the man-coverage heavy schemes the Irish were playing. They weren’t necessarily easy matchups (the big plays he gave up were mostly against NFL talent), but the secondary struggled against Arizona State and USC, and Butler was among the victims.
At this point, I think Butler is a situational player. He’s likely got some positional flexibility between safety and cornerback, but it’ll take injuries to get him on the field and a wave of young talent is looking to pass him on the depth chart.
I liked Butler’s knack for making plays early on—he was a productive guy in niche roles and actually made a ton of tackles when the depleted Irish defense needed it. But a Cover 2 corner who gives up the underneath balls can’t get beat over the top. And as a sophomore Butler did too much of that down the stretch.
He’ll get a fresh start learning under Todd Lyght. But with young guys like Nick Coleman and Shaun Crawford already on campus, Butler needs to elevate his game or he’ll be a full-time special teamer.
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.
THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB