As a senior at Joliet Catholic Academy, J.B. Butler was recognized as one of the top football linemen in the area.
He was destined to help position the Hilltoppers for a legitimate shot at state title No. 14.
Then, it happened. He suffered a broken leg early in the season. Not only did that hinder what JCA was hoping to accomplish, but it made you wonder which of his college opportunities would go by the board.
When the time came, Butler, an excellent student, visited Northwestern and accepted an offer to join coach Pat Fitzgerald’s program as a preferred walk-on.
“As a preferred walk-on, we obviously had to consider the financial aspect,” said Butler, a 6-foot-3, 305-pound red-shirt junior who will be at left guard – look for No. 59 on your TV screen – when the Wildcats (9-3) tackle Kentucky (7-5) in the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tennessee at 3:30 p.m. Friday on ESPN. “But I liked the school, the guys I met, the culture. It was a perfect fit for me.”
The big thing as a preferred walk-on is to earn playing time and a scholarship.
“I earned a scholarship last December, just before we played in the Pinstripe Bowl,” Butler said. “I was in the starting lineup for nine games last year. The goal is to play, and once you play, [the goal is] to earn a scholarship.
“We had a senior captain last year who was playing left guard, and he went down early in the season. I had been playing center and both guards [in a backup role] and I kind of fell into his spot.”
Not that he doesn’t belong.
Butler has been a mainstay in an offensive line that worked through early-season issues and has been spot on during Northwestern’s current seven-game winning streak. The Wildcats won three successive overtime games – including a three-overtime thriller over Michigan State – and have blitzed their last few opponents.
“We started off real slow this year, and that’s especially bad when your first two conference games are Penn State and Wisconsin, two of the best teams in the conference,” Butler said of two early one-sided setbacks. “We went to work after that on fundamentals, on doing things right and being physical.
“The first four or five games of the season were not up to our standards as a line. We decided if we push guys around, not many are going to beat you.”
NAGEL & LANCASTER
Wildcats running back Justin Jackson and quarterback Clayton Thorson have been major beneficiaries of the improved line play.
“It’s a lot easier to block for players like Justin and Clayton,” Butler said. “Justin is amazing. He’s had four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.”
Another major contributor on the offensive side of the ball is junior wide receiver Flynn Nagel, a Lemont graduate. He leads the team with 47 receptions, which have gone for 483 yards and two touchdowns.
“Flynn obviously is a great player, a great receiver, and he’s also a great person and teammate,” Butler said.
In the trenches on the opposite side of the ball is 6-4, 315-pound Tyler Lancaster, a senior defensive tackle from Plainfield East who has 38 tackles, two sacks and nine tackles for loss.
“Tyler’s a force inside on our defense,” Butler said. “Every team we go against game plans for him.”
One reason for Butler’s success with the Wildcats is he has avoided the injury bug.
“I have had no injuries here, knock on wood, just the little bumps and bruises that everyone gets,” he said. “It’s easy to play when you’re healthy. My senior year at JCA, I broke my leg. I haven’t had anything like that since.”
Another element is the relationship Butler and his linemates have built.
“When you get a lot of guys who are like-minded together, that’s what makes a line work,” he said. “Four of my best friends were in the line with me at JCA, and some of my best friends here at Northwestern are my fellow linemen.”
Butler is a political science major with a 3.1 GPA. He will graduate in June.
“I have four classes left,” he said. “I’ll take three in the winter and one in the spring. I do have another year to play. My plan is to apply to grad school here and play next year.”
Butler will be playing Friday afternoon in his third bowl game and second as a starter. In the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Florida, two seasons ago, he was on special teams as the Wildcats lost to Tennessee, 45-6. He was at left guard for last season’s Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, where Northwestern beat Pitt, 31-24.
“Anybody who criticizes bowl games, or says there are too many, does not play in them,” Butler said. “Especially for any senior who can finish his college career, or his football career, in a bowl game, it’s a great experience.”
For example, some of the Wildcats had stage time this week at the Grand Old Opry. They were in Nashville over Christmas and ate at a Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant that Butler said “was good – and, it was about the only place open.”
The immediate order of business, of course, is to win a second straight bowl game. Down the road, Butler plans to play his final collegiate season as a grad student and then perhaps take a shot at the NFL, if the stars align.
“Whether I continue on in football after Northwestern depends on how I am graded by NFL scouts in the system they use,” he said. “If I have a chance to try the NFL, I’ll take it. That’s been a dream. But if I don’t have a chance, I’ll hang it up.”
Either way, his decision to attend Northwestern as a preferred walk-on could not have worked out better.
“It’s been a wild ride,” he said. “Honestly, I can’t say enough about what Northwestern has done for me and my family. I’m glad I have another year to play.”