The Key Word For Lance Butler: Adapt

When he came to the University of Florida five years ago, he was a virtual unknown, a big, tall lineman from a small school in North Carolina with good feet who had flown under the radar for most of the nation's analysts who make their living rating high school football talent. The key word in those days for Lance Butler was potential. He had some intangibles such as intelligence, height and speed, a nice foundation on which a real player could be built.

Five years later and just days away from running out the tunnel in The Swamp for one last time to the roar of another packed house of 90,000, the word potential still describes Lance although nowadays people use the term in respect to what will happen when Lance goes to the next level. He will get drafted although it will probably be on day two but Lance Butler will get the chance to play at in the NFL because there simply aren't many 6-7, 310-pounders athletic enough and fast enough to lead the blocking for a running back 40 yards downfield. He started two years at Florida at guard and has proven to be a reliable tackle on the right side during this his senior year so scouts like his versatility and his ability to adapt.

That's another key word for Lance Butler. Adapt. He's had to adapt in his five years at Florida simply to maintain his sanity. His five year roller coaster in Gainesville has seen three head coaches, numerous assistants including three offensive line coaches, four offensive coordinators, several close encounters with championships that came up empty and the death of his best friend within weeks of his arrival on campus.

Perspectives change when so much happens in such a short span of time, particularly when you're at an impressionable age to begin with. He will be the first to tell you that he's a changed man, in part because he's five years older and more mature but also because he's had to learn that life doesn't always play fair. Yet for all the experiences both good and bad and for all the changes that have taken place, he's still the same Lance Butler who came to Florida from Lexington, North Carolina. Never one to be full of himself, he's quiet, thoughtful, caring of others, and always respectful of his elders. That's the way Tom Butler raised him and that's the way he will always be. The routes we take in life may be altered but when you're so well grounded in basic decency, you may leave the path briefly but you never take a detour.

He came to Florida along with another recruit who flew under the radar for the longest time, Eraste Autin, a fullback from Lafayette, Louisiana who came on so strongly in his senior year that he caught everyone by surprise. Autin was a man-child with tremendous strength and agility, the fullback of the future who could run and catch the ball. During the recruiting process, Butler and Autin became best of friends and Florida became their destination largely because of their growing friendship.

Autin died of a heat related illness just days before August camp was to begin for the Gators. Butler and Florida's other freshmen were heart broken by the loss, but it would be just the first of many bumps on their road to this final game in 2005.

Since then, Steve Spurrier, the coach who recruited him, resigned at the end of the 2001 season and with him went his first offensive line coach, Jimmy Ray Stephens. Ron Zook, the coach who replaced Spurrier, was fired shortly after the midway point of 2004 and when he departed, offensive line coach number two, Joe Wickline left. Now Urban Meyer leads the Florida program and John Hevesy is the offensive line coach.

Spurrier was his own offensive coordinator, so there was a system in place that Butler was learning when he arrived. Zook brought in Ed Zaunbrecher with a new system that lasted two years and last year, Larry Fedora became the offensive coordinator with a similar but different system. Meyer brought Dan Mullen with him to install the spread option, the fourth offensive system in five years for Butler.

"I never thought I would go through all this when I signed up to come here," said Butler after practice Tuesday evening. "It has made me into a better person and I've learned a lot about me. It's been a lot of stuff to work through and deal with, things that I never expected to happen.

"I've done a lot of stuff that was fun off the field, made a lot of friends, too, but football … well, it hasn't turned out like I thought it would when I came here but I don't regret anything on the football field except that we haven't won any championships. I feel bad for the rest of the guys that we haven't won a championship here … that's pretty hard to take."

The lack of a championship does eat away silently at Butler's gut. He's not the most vocal of guys. He's the quiet type that you tell to do something and then watch as he busts his butt over and over again until he has the assignment down pat. He's started for three years and he knows how close the Gators have come to winning titles but somehow the championships have eluded them.

"We have been so close and I can't really tell you how or why we never came through," he said. "I can tell you this … nothing hurts this group of seniors more than the fact that we never won a championship. That's something we'll all have to live with."

So their championship dreams have been capsulized into a one-game component. All that's left, at least in the regular season, is a chance to go out with a win over arch-rival Florida State. To beat the Seminoles would be the second straight year the Gators have ended the regular season with a win over FSU … and it should be a chance at a third except that Jack Childress and his crew of ACC incompetents in zebra stripes stole one away from UF in 2003.

"This is huge for our team because of all the though times we've been through this season," said Butler. "We're in a new offense that has had some struggles but we've done some good things too. If we could end it with a win over Florida State, our biggest rival, in our last time in The Swamp together, that would be a great way for our seniors to go out and it would be huge for the young guys, too. They will be able to build on this for the future if we win."

When he considers the future, he will do it with a degree from the University of Florida. He's always had his academic priorities right. He knows that he will get his shot at the next level too but wherever he is, he will always be a Gator. He feels a sense of confidence about the Florida football program and where it's going.

"I think this is going to be a great era of Florida football," he said. "Coach Meyer and these coaches are going to do a great job of recruiting to bring in the kind of guys who will make the guys who are already here better players.

"With these coaches and their attitude about developing players, I think the future is so bright for the Gators. These coaches are more committed to the players and developing them as football players and as people more than any time since I've been at Florida. When you see how they are going about things, building the program in the right way, you know it's going to work. You know that there will be championships and that Florida football is going to be all that it can be."

There will be a bowl game in either late December or on January 2, but for now, the single most important goal is to go out with a win over the Seminoles.

"To beat them in the last home game would be a great period to end our stay here at Florida," he said. "Even with all the tough times, it's been great to be here. This would make it better."

BAKER IMPROVING: After Tuesday's practice, Meyer said that the condition of wide receiver Dallas Baker is improving daily. Baker broke a rib and punctured a lung in the first half against Georgia. He's seen limited duty in the two games since then.

"He'll be an 80-90 percenter," said Meyer. "He's doing much better. It's great to have him out here because he's turned into being an excellent leader as well."

Baker has 39 catches for 512 yards and two touchdowns this season.

RECRUITING NEEDS: Meyer said that Florida's lack of depth at certain positions such as linebacker and wide receiver will have to be made up with a strong recruiting class. He mentioned at Monday's media day that it takes 12 receivers to run the offense due to the changing sets and the emphasis on blocking.

Florida's depth will be helped at linebacker by the recovery of freshman Jon Demps from knee surgery and the development of Ryan Stamper, Kalvin Baker and Daryl Gresham, all of whom redshirted. Gresham may be moved to defensive end in the spring. Florida is expected to sign at least four linebackers in this class.

At wide receiver, the Gators redshirted David Nelson. Florida will likely sign five or six wide receivers in this class.

"You try to find the best players you can and we made a decision to redshirt a couple of guys," said Meyer Tuesday. "But those two positions [linebacker and receiver] along with the offensive line … there's a bunch of positions [lacking depth].

"Obviously you address them with recruiting. You just go after the best players players available. You put a board together and you say this is how many slots you have for this position, this position and then you try to fill them in best you can."

THANKSGIVING PLANS: The Gators will practice Thursday morning then break for Thanksgiving day. They will return to practice at the normal time on Friday. Meyer said that players who don't live close by and can't go home with other players will be welcome at his home.

"In the past we've done this as well," he said. "The good thing about Florida is there are a lot of kids within distance so they can go home. A lot of kids are going home with some of the other players."

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