SENIOR FEATURE: Donald Butler
Oct. 13, 2009
by Michael Jeremiah
In college football, contributors are usually visible for two years, three years for the most talented players. A four-year impact player is extremely rare, but rare is the best way to describe Donald Butler. The senior linebacker has been an important member of the Husky defense and special teams' effort since his first season at Washington.
In his four years, Butler has proven to be a big-game performer. A tireless worker in any game, Butler has raised his level of play when the Huskies have faced nationally prominent teams.
As a freshman, he recorded the first tackle of his career against BCS-bowl bound Oklahoma, setting the tone for a career marked by rising to the occasion when the Huskies need him.
Butler played mostly special teams as a freshman, but moved into the rotation at linebacker in his sophomore year. He showed that he was worthy of that spot early that year, as he posted an impressive performance against Big Ten Champion Ohio State. He was a large part of a performance that had the Huskies leading the Buckeyes at halftime, starting at linebacker and tallying 11 tackles -- including one for loss -- and added two pass defended. Later that year, in another marquee game against USC, Butler racked up nine tackles and another tackle for loss.
Primed for a solid junior year, Butler had to adjust to a new role. Normally a middle linebacker, Butler was moved to the outside for six games last year due to the team's needs. Although he was out of his normal position, Butler showed his versatility by performing well enough to be named the Most Improved Player on the defense.
'They just wanted to get the best three guys out there on the field and they felt moving me to outside linebacker would be beneficial for the team,' said Butler. 'I'm all about winning ballgames. If that was going to help, I was all about doing that.'
Playing outside meant more space and more responsibility in coverage. He did not mind that part of the position, and showed obvious talent there. Unfortunately, that position can also be minimized by the opponent by running plays to the opposite side, away from Butler. For someone who thrives on playing in the thick of the action, it was hard to see the ball going the other way.
While he was ready and willing to change positions, Butler was happy to move back inside for his senior year. He has taken his play to another level in 2009.
Butler has also taken his leadership abilities to another level. Butler was picked as the UW players' spokesman and representative for the Pacific-10 Conference media day in August. He further cemented his role as a team leader when he was selected as one of four team captains before the season started.
Thought to be a part of a three-headed monster at linebacker this year along with Mason Foster and E.J Savannah, Butler has pushed himself above the rest with huge games in the first half of the season. That is quite the accomplishment to make with a group that is heralded as a top unit.
'We felt that once we got E.J. back that we would have one of the best linebacker corps in the nation. It's not just the starting three either, it's everybody else too,' said Butler.
The linebackers have played well, but Butler took it to another level when a national power came to town in late September. He was one of the most important players to Washington's momentous upset of USC. In the 16-13 upset, Butler was all over the field. He finished with 12 total tackles, 10 solo, and forced a fumble. And perhaps the most important play of the day for the defense came when number nine stepped in front of an Aaron Corp pass while the Trojans were driving into Husky territory for an interception.
He garnered national attention for his play that day, earning the Walter Camp Football Foundation Defensive Player of the Week award and the Pac-10 Player of the Week.
'This coaching staff has taught us how to carry yourself in big games,' said Butler. 'They've made us understand that it starts in practice and how to get after it to be a good team.
'I live in football by the quote, `big time players play big in big games,' to fuel my fire. My teammates look to me to make plays and thankfully I'm able to do that. I was in the right place at the right time. The coaches called the plays that let me go out and make plays. That was an experience that I'm never going to forget.'
Butler again showed his penchant for performing at big moments against Notre Dame. Late in the second quarter, Butler intercepted Jimmy Clausen to stop an Irish drive and give the Huskies a momentum boost going into halftime. Washington was unable to capitalize on the turnover, but Butler showed again that he will continue to be a playmaking force for the Huskies this year.
There are six games left in what will be a notable career for Butler, and the senior captain has his mind set on victories and extending that number to eight with a bowl game. At 3-3, the Huskies need to win at least three out of their last six to achieve that goal, but if the determination in Butler's voice when he talks about bowl eligibility continues to show in his play, the Huskies will be in good position for a run at a bowl game.
Butler's play this year has the Huskies' future looking bright, and it is also helping his own chances of continuing his career after college. Butler has risen in pundits' ratings for the NFL Draft next April because of his play. Professional teams will have a hard time finding a player with more experience and a better ability to make big plays.
Any more development from Butler this year could be due to the tutoring of new linebackers coach Mike Cox. Cox spent time coaching in the NFL, and knows what it takes for a player to succeed in the professional ranks.
'He's just another great defensive mind to have on our coaching staff. It helps us linebackers even more. He has experience from the NFL and had a lot of experience there and we can go to him if we have any questions,' said Butler.
For now, Butler is focusing on the next six games. In his final season, he has very clear goals that the team is in range of accomplishing. After four years of hard work, his defining final season comes down to a simple aspiration.
'We are trying to win games and go to a bowl game,' said Butler. 'That's the plan. We need to win six to go to a bowl game and that's what's on the line now.'