Aug. 26, 2004
by Simit Shah
ATLANTA–Even James Butler can’t quite explain it. To say the Georgia Tech safety had a knack for being in the right place at the right time last season is a monumental understatement.
Against Vanderbilt in the fifth week of the last season, his interception in overtime sealed the victory. Two weeks later at Wake Forest, he picked off another pass, forced two fumbles and blocked a field goal, all in the first half. Fast forward another twelve days, he earned ACC Defensive Back of the Week honors for 12 tackles and two more interceptions in a narrow 7-3 victory over Maryland on national television.
“I don’t know,” the senior said with a smile when asked about that amazing stretch of the season. “If you’re ready to play, those types of things will happen. That’s all that is.”
“James is one of those guys that is always in the film room,” explained fellow defensive back and close friend Dennis Davis. “During games, he sees certain formations, and he knows what plays are coming before the quarterback snaps the ball.”
That level of preparation, combined with his athleticism, has propelled the Climax, Georgia native to the upper echelon of college football. Butler was named first-team all-ACC last season in his first year as a starter, and he enters this campaign as a preseason all-American.
The 6-3, 210-pounder is again a candidate for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back, after being a semi-finalist last year.
“I’m excited about this season, but not about all that,” he said. “We’re a good team, and we can be as good as any [secondary] over the last few years. We have that potential and the talent, but we just have to work hard during camp.”
The Yellow Jackets return a talented and experienced secondary around Butler. Junior Dawan Landry is also a returning starter, as is Reuben Houston at cornerback. Davis and sophomore Kenny Scott are battling for the other corner spot.
“We’ve been together for a few years, and that helps,” Davis noted. “We’ve talked about a lot of situations, so we all know where we’re going to be when those things happen in games. James is definitely a leader of this defense. We listen to him, and we look up to him. It’s great having someone like him back there.”
Butler came to Tech after a stellar prep career at Bainbridge High School, where he not only played defensive back but was also the team’s punter for three seasons. At Tech, he earned playing time as a true freshman, mostly on special teams. As a sophomore, he saw action as a reserve defensive back.
“I was pretty sure he was going to become a good player,” Davis stated. “During his freshman and sophomore years, he was working a lot with [the first team] behind Jeremy Muyres and Cory Collins. He looked good back then, so I knew that once they left, James would step in.”
Butler was more than up to the challenge of starting. He finished the year with five interceptions and six pass breakups. His 116 tackles set a single-season school record for a defensive back.
Butler has drawn raves from observers all over college football. ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit rated Butler one of the nation’s top “centerfielders.”
Even NFL draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr., has noticed Butler, ranking him No. 9 among his list of senior prospects for next spring’s draft.
“I’m not worried about all that right now,” said Butler. “I’m just focused on this team and this season.”
In addition of his stellar work on the field last season, Butler also soared in the classroom. The building construction major was named the to the ACC all-Academic team, an honor that also carries weight on the football field.
“That guy’s all-academic,” said all-ACC defensive end Eric Henderson, also an Academic All-ACC selection. “To have a guy that smart behind you, you don’t worry about anything. You know he’s going to make the right decision, and you just trust him. He’s a captain on our defense, and he’s a tremendous player.”
“I think James is a great leader,” added coach Chan Gailey. “He is not a vocal leader. He is a leader by example.”