Notre Dame CB Devin Butler relishes starting role
SOUTH BEND — Four plays into the Stanford game, Devin Butler got a pretty good idea of what might lie ahead.
He was the new guy in the Notre Dame football team’s lineup. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound junior cornerback was the most recent “next man in,” after KeiVarae Russell went down with a leg injury against Boston College.
Any offensive coordinator worth his salt was going to test this unproven commodity — early and often.
Butler’s first assignment was to keep Devon Cajuste from coming up with a Kevin Hogan pass.
Mission accomplished. One down, a whole bunch to go.
Butler was pretty busy in the regular season-ending 38-36 loss to the Cardinal. The three tackles and one break up he had — before leaving with a concussion late in the game — hardly explained the challenge Butler and his secondary mates had against Stanford, which threw for 269 yards, while completing an amazing 17 of 21.
“(Leading up to Stanford), my coaches and teammates were telling me to go in there and play with confidence,” Butler said. “‘You’re not the same player you were last year. You can compete with anybody in the country.’
“It was up to me to believe in it and play the game I know how to play.
“(That first break-up) felt good, but you’ve gotta refocus and do it again. (Secondary) coach (Todd) Lyght always says, ‘Whenever you have a good play, do it again; do it again.’”
Heck, that break up accounted for 25 percent of Stanford’s incompletions for the entire game — a staggering fact.
The Stanford game was Butler’s third career start — the other two came last year during November (Arizona State and Southern Cal), when the Irish defense was decimated by injuries. Russell missed last season after an academic issue. Fifth-year transfer Cody Riggs was hobbled with a foot problem late in the season. Notre Dame was running out of options.
Last year, Butler was much more active within the framework of the defense than he’s been this season. As a sophomore, he spent a lot of time as an extra defensive back in passing situations. He collected 23 tackles, a forced fumble, and an interception (against Purdue).
Russell returned this season, starting alongside Cole Luke, and Matthias Farley found a role as that extra defensive back. That left Butler, who collected 11 tackles, two pass break-ups and a forced fumble, to find his niche primarily as a special teams player.
“I had to do what the team needed me to do,” said Butler, who claimed he had no trouble staying positive despite the diminished role. “What the team needed me to do this year is different from what it needed me to do last year. I just wanted to contribute, whether it was on special teams or defense.
“(Playing special teams) helps to build that confidence; helps to keep you sharp and ready for your game.”
There have been about a dozen “next man in” situations with the Irish this season, so it hasn’t been a hard sell for the guys down the depth chart.
“The coaching staff tells us every day, ‘You’ve gotta prepare like a starter. You never know. You’re one play away from getting in,’” Butler said. “You always want to be prepared for your opportunity. I’m just grateful I have this opportunity. Now, I’m ready to go out there and dominate.”
Butler has risen from obscurity to the bright lights in one of college football’s top postseason matchups. What are the odds Ohio State makes some plans to pick on him in the Fiesta Bowl Jan. 1?
If there’s one area where the Buckeyes have struggled, it’s passing offense. Ohio State ranks 103rd in the country in passing yards with 187 a game, but 36th in passing efficiency. Notre Dame is 61st in passing efficiency defense, and has given up 196 passing yards a game.
While Ezekiel Elliott will be a load in a big-time run game, Ohio State has three receivers — Michael Thomas (6-3, 210; 49 receptions, 709 yards, 8 TDs), Jalin Marshall (5-11, 205; 31, 448, 5) and Braxton Miller (6-2, 215; 24, 329, 3) — who can give a defense problems.
“(Ohio State) is definitely unique,” Butler said. “They have great talent. We’ve got great talent here, too. It’s about executing how we know how to execute.”
And not trying to do too much.
“(Head) coach (Brian) Kelly has stressed all year, a one-play focus,” Butler said. “You’ve gotta focus on one play at a time. ‘Inch by inch, life is a cinch. Yard by yard, that’s when life gets hard.’”
Now’s the time to focus on that inch.