Dec 30, 2017; Memphis, TN, USA; Iowa State Cyclones wide receiver Hakeem Butler (18) scores a touchdown against Memphis Tigers defensive back Jonathan Cook (14) during the first half in the 2017 Liberty Bowl at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Press the pause button while you can, Big 12 corners.
Iowa State junior receiver Hakeem Butler will whir past you — swiftly, powerfully and repeatedly.
In other words: Let his size fool you at your peril.
“I’ve always known I was fast,” said the 6-6 Butler, who’s poised to become the Cyclones’ top target in 2018. “It creeps up on people just because of my stride, and corners, if they watch film, they should realize that early and understand what’s happening. But I see some dudes surprised once I go by them, but other than that, I mean, they better watch film.”
Butler spent last season shining in the slot while fellow big target Allen Lazard cemented his hold on several all-time program receiving records on the outside.
This season, ISU coaches are searching for the perfect starting slot for the lanky, but deceptively – quick Baltimore native — and that may change play-by-play, and/or game-by-game.
“For us, first and foremost, is we’ve got to figure out what his role’s gonna be,” Cyclones receivers coach Bryan Gasser said. “Is he gonna spend most of his time, like he did a year ago, on the inside, or are we gonna play him on the outside? But Hakeem’s skill set is certainly different than what we played at that ‘X’ position a year ago, when you talk about Allen. Even though both of those guys have size, Hakeem’s built a little bit differently. So making some of the contested catches that you’ve seen Allen make in the past, or being able to be a go-to guy in one-on-one critical situations — those are some things, we’ve got to put him in some of those situations this spring to see if he can do it. The same thing with Matt Eaton. I think both those guys can really do some of those things and take over some of that ownership in our offense.”
Butler ranked second to Lazard in receiving yards per game (53.6), touchdown catches (seven) and total receiving yards (697) last season. He also sprinted for the longest receiving touchdown of the season — a 74-yard strike in the 44-41 overtime loss to Iowa.
But questions marks linger, for obvious reasons. Lazard and fellow graduates Marchie Murdock and Trever Ryen accounted for 159 of ISU’s 300 catches last season and 16 of its 27 touchdown grabs.
The upshot: Someone needs to become Lazard-like and Butler’s the early favorite.
“For sure, he definitely has more potential than probably I did,” Lazard said after Pro Day. “He definitely has the tangibles. He’s just got to go out there and bring it every single day and be the man.”
So release the pause button. Butler’s shifting into fast-forward mode. Blink and you’ll be left behind.
“He was probably our most explosive (receiver),” Gasser said of the 2017 person of Butler. “He can cover ground in a hurry and when you watch him run, he doesn’t look that fast, but as you’re standing there across from him as a defender, he gets there in a hurry. He can cover 10 yards pretty quick, so I think that’s the one thing — he is kind of a sneaky fast guy. He’s a very smooth runner. He’s loose. He’s got good hips. Obviously you saw him on the inside where he can maneuver through tight spaces pretty well, so he’s got some of those things. He’s got a very good feel for releases at the line of scrimmage. If you come up and press him, with his length and his ability to create separation within a tight space, that’s a huge advantage for him.”
Eaton, at 6-4, possesses similar attributes and shifty speedster Deshaunte Jones has “redefined” himself in the offseason, Gasser said.
Eaton caught four touchdown passes last season and is determined to make stronger, more consistent contributions this season.
“I think a lot of times last year I didn’t step up and make the play for the team when we really needed it going down the line,” said Eaton, who averaged 16 yards per catch in 2017 despite battling some nagging injuries. “I think back to games like Oklahoma State and things like that, where I think I just could have performed a lot better, so I’m just trying to focus on being more consistent, bringing more energy to every drive, being that go-to guy (on) third down. Just know that I’m going to come up with the play.”
There will be plenty to go around. It’s no secret the Cyclones plan to rely on elite tailback David Montgomery as the bell cow of the offense, but that doesn’t mean the receivers and tight ends won’t have myriad chances to impact games.
Fast forward again: Several talented, younger and largely untested pass catchers have turned heads this spring, as well — so much so, that Eaton stopped trying to list all the names in fear of leaving someone out.
“Y’all can definitely expect an explosive group,” Eaton summed up.
But who are some of the youthful standouts?
“Tarique (Milton), he’s a freak,” Butler said. “Fast and (great) hands, for him to be that size. Josh (Johnson)? I don’t know anybody in the country that runs routes like he (does). Just from top to bottom, we’ve got people. And Landen (Akers), he’s definitely the definition of freak. Fastest (receiver), highest jumper, everything. He’s a freak.”
And Jalen Martin?
“Jalen’s definitely a young guy that everyone should be looking out for,” Butler added.
Butler was that guy a couple years ago. Now he’s carving out a leadership role as a junior — helping the younger guys weather the ups and downs that necessarily accompany early strides and learning curves.
“It’s fun just because I see a guy make a play and I’m like, ‘That dude, he’s gonna be somebody,’” Butler said. “It’s crazy, because I used to be down there. Coach used to tell me that. It’s just wild to see now.”
Just like his speed. When experienced in real time, it turns heads and demands extended film study. Or else.
“Speed and size,” Butler said. “I think it’s just something you can’t coach.”