DURHAM --Lee Butler has a little different view of the game of football from his cornerback position on the Duke football team. Sure, the game comes right at him in many forms. It can come in the form of a running back, a receiver or a large tackle looking for someone to block.
But what really gives Butler a different view is the fact the Blue Devil senior played quarterback in high school and uses that offensive knowledge to create problems for opposing signal-callers.
In fact, he caused a little trouble for the NFL’s No.1 pick last year, when he picked off a pass by Stanford’s Andrew Luck and returned it 76 yards for a touchdown.
“I saw him throw the ball and I knew where it was going, so I broke on the ball. Johnny Williams tipped it and I was able to grab it and take off down the field,” explained Butler. ”I knew as soon as I got the ball in my hands no one was going to catch me.”
The pick six came with 2:14 left in the second quarter and pulled the Devils back to within three points of the No. 6 ranked Cardinal at 10-7.
Butler now returns for his fifth year with the Blue Devils after suffering a leg injury in the Tulane game and receiving a medical hardship ruling to allow him to play another season.
“I feel like it’s a blessing,” said Butler, who is the most experienced player on the team having appeared in 38 games. “A lot of guys that get hurt their senior year may not be able to come back and play again, so just knowing that you are one of the guys that got another chance, it has helped me to understand how lucky I am, and along with my experience it gives me a big advantage.”
Butler gained his familiarity with the defensive secondary the hard way by playing in 11 games in 2008 as a true freshman, earning his first collegiate start against Miami that season. As a sophomore he played again in 11 games with seven starts, and then moved to the safety position as a junior in 2010, starting in all 12 games and pulling in an interception against defending national champion Alabama.
In 2011 he was moved back to the cornerback position, where he played in the first four games prior to the leg injury against Tulane.
“Lee is a very, very studious player and has sacrificed a lot for us,” explained defensive backfield coach Derek Jones. “Because of our depth situation four years ago when we recruited Lee, we had to play him right out of high school and he really wasn’t ready to play from a mental standpoint. He was from a physical standpoint, but it was tough to make that transition from the high school field to the college field. But we had to throw him right out there and have him play on his natural ability.
“He was an 18-year-old young man going up against 22-year-old men in some instances, and then he had to transition to playing safety for us,” Jones continued. “This year is the first time he has really had an extensive amount of time to focus on being a corner.”
“It’s an advantage to have played those years at safety,” said Butler, a two-time Academic All-ACC selection who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in liberal studies. “At corner you are either in man or zone defense. At safety you have to worry about linebackers and worry about where people are on the field. Because I played safety I have a greater knowledge of where my defensive players are located on the field.”
Butler is able to take that experience and use it in practice as well as games. And he gets to do it on a daily basis against one of Duke’s and the ACC’s top receivers in Conner Vernon.
“The other day in workouts we were doing red zones, one-on-one. I was able to beat him off the line with a slant. For me it seemed I was wide open for a touchdown, but he came out of nowhere and knocked it down,” explained Vernon, also a senior who has pulled in 198 receptions in his career. “He definitely uses his speed to his advantage.”
“That play was run for him to beat me off the line of scrimmage, but somehow, someway I made it back and broke up the play,” countered Butler. “For me it is a natural thing. While other guys say ‘Wow,’ I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to do. When he beat me at the line I was a little upset so I went really hard for the ball and knocked it down.”
“(Lee’s) knowledge of the game has become so great these last five years,” added Vernon. “He’s able to use that experience and play to his advantage with a great deal of understanding of what kind of offense the other teams are running. Facing such a crafty, knowledgeable corner is definitely challenging for a receiver, whether it’s in practice for me or for an opponent in a game. That knowledge allows him to give the appearance of a receiver being open to both the quarterback and the receiver, when in fact he knows what’s going on and can make the break on the ball and bust up the play.”
Position coach Jones, who has been at Duke all five years with Butler, was a two-time All-SEC second team pick at cornerback at Mississippi and grew up in Woodruff, S.C., not far from Butler’s hometown of Anderson. Like Butler, Jones played quarterback in high school and has an understanding of how Butler sees the game.
“Lee is one of those guys who has special abilities that you can’t teach,” explained Jones. “He’s a player that possess incredible recovery time for a defensive back and that comes from his explosive quickness and speed. He also has an offensive mentality as a defensive back, from being a quarterback, which makes him think differently from most defensive players.”
That quickness and tough play have not only made Butler a good football player but those skills have also made his teammates better players.
“He has definitely added craft to my game,” added Vernon, a preseason first team All-ACC selection at receiver. “I’ve had to change up some things due to his coverage style. He’s a real good coverage corner; he’s not afraid to get up in your face and he’s really fast and has a strong upper body. He has explosive quickness and great make-up speed, which gives him a chance to break on the ball and not only knock it away, but pick it off.”
Butler talks about his speed as a natural God-given ability, but his strength is something he has worked on over the past five years. He has worked hard on his upper body in order to be strong enough to jam a receiver at the line of scrimmage.
“I have been playing a lot more close and up tight at the line on the receivers,” he explained. “I have learned to quick jab and give the guys a lot of different looks.”
Butler knows that his upper body strength can also be used to break up a reception at the last moment.
“A lot of times when you are there the same time as the receiver, you have to pull that ball out and away from his hands and that upper body strength helps you and gives you an advantage even though he had it in his hands.”
At 5-foot-11, Butler is a decent size for a defensive back, but he still faces a number of taller receivers.
“We hate a guy that is short and quick more than we do a bigger guy,” said Butler, who has a total of three interceptions so far in his career. “A bigger guy we can get our hands on him. Sometimes when the tall guys can go up and get the ball, you have to be smart and know that when he comes down with the ball you can knock it out of his hands, because most of the tall guys don’t have great arm strength.”
Butler also recognizes there are times when you are going to get beat as a cornerback and the receiver is going to make the catch. His job is to minimize the effect of those catches and begin to cut the field down on the receiver.
“There are times when you are going to get beat and you have to be ready to handle that situation and make the next play,” said Butler. “You have to come back and do something about it, maybe not right now, but later in the game you can recall what happened on that play and this time make the break on the ball and either knock it down or intercept it.”
“You have to have a really short term memory at that position,” said Vernon in describing the cornerback position. “We have a lot of field to work with. As a receiver we know when we are going to make our move and they don’t, obviously. You are going to get burned more as a corner than you are going to burn people, but what separates the great ones from the good ones is they learn from those catches and then make a big play.”
When Butler isn’t knocking down passes as a cornerback, his other specialty is returning punts. In his last full season of 2010 he averaged 8.62 yards per return, which ranked him fifth in the ACC and 31st in the nation.
“When you talk about explosive, you talk about basically a three-step movement where can he change direction in three steps” explained Jones. “Lee’s athletic ability and explosiveness is very evident when he has the ball in his hands as a punt returner. He is a stride guy, so you can’t really tell how fast he is going because he is not a very quick foot guy, he is a very long stride guy for his size. But he is as explosive a player as I have ever coached.”
“I like returning punts because it gives me a chance to get the ball in my hands and an opportunity to make something happen on the field with my speed,” said Butler.
One of the true bonuses of having an older player on the team is the quiet leadership that Butler brings to the defense.
“You’re not going to hear him as a leader, you’re not going to see him get too emotional or too excited, but he is a very hands-on guy in knowing how to work with the guys in the secondary, in terms of knowing what is going on and in knowing how to tell them how to handle things in the secondary,” Jones explained. “One of the things that happened to Lee was when he had to play the safety position he learned what everyone was doing, so quietly he goes about being a leader. The younger guys see him in meetings, they see the respect I give to him and the responsibility I give him, so they watch him. When a guy leads by example, guys are going to follow him because they know he is doing the right thing.”
It’s that quiet leadership that just may guide the Blue Devil secondary to some big plays that produce victories this fall.
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