He's probably achieved more than 90 percent of the recruitaholics ever expected when he signed with Florida back in February of 2001. He's started for two and a half years and shown he can more than hold his own against the biggest and best defenders in the Southeastern Conference. He'll leave Florida with a diploma he picked up a couple of weeks ago and he will get his shot to play for pay next season. It's unlikely that he will be drafted on the first day, but someone will give him a shot in the lower rounds and nobody should be the least bit surprised when he not only makes a team but sticks around for awhile in the National Football League. The NFL is not exactly top heavy when it comes to 6-7, 315-pounders who are both smart and able to run like a deer. If you've ever watched Florida replays closely, it's not an unusual sight to see Lance Butler 40 yards down field still blocking for a running back that's 10 yards behind him. Those kind of offensive linemen don't grow on trees and that's why he'll get his shot to play on Sundays.
When Lance was signed in 2001, he was considered a project from a small high school in North Carolina whose greatest asset was size. You can't teach kids to be 6-7 and 300 pounds at age 17 so he had an upside to him.
"I never thought looking back, never really dawned on me that I could play college football until I got my first offer in the mail," said Lance. "Then I had the opportunity to come here and just work hard."
Along the recruiting trail that led to Gainesville he became best buddies with Eraste Autin, the man-child fullback from Lafayette, Louisiana, who also signed with the Gators. They bonded instantly, talked practically every day on the phone and became as close as two brothers. There was no question that they would be roommates for the duration at Florida and friends for life.
When Autin collapsed on that July afternoon in 2001 at the practice field, a couple of weeks before two a days were supposed to begin, Lance Butler's heart sunk to indescribable depths. When his friend died a few days later from heat related complications, that sunken heart broke in a thousand pieces. During that redshirt freshman season of 2001, the Gators were high flyers, rising to the number one ranking at one point, but these were tough times for Lance Butler, adjusting to the size and strength of Division I football players while trying to get through another day without crying a bucket of tears.
I met Lance in the spring of 2002. Through the Gator Country chat rooms and message boards, I got to know Lance's dad, Tom. Tom came down for the spring game, which was Ron Zook's coaching debut at Florida. At a post-game party, Tom showed up with Lance and I got to spend an hour or so talking with him about so much more than football.
When the conversation inevitably turned to Eraste, he fought off the tears valiantly, thanks, in part, to some timely intervention by Tom. After spending the time with Lance, I was convinced he was going to do just fine in the game of life and I felt that he would do just fine on the football field, too. The part about life was easy. You don't have to be a brain scientist or a rocket surgeon to figure that out --- just talk to him for a few minutes. The football part was just speculation at the time but I felt there was an unspoken determination and motivation deep within him that would somehow allow him to succeed.
He did what most second year freshmen offensive linemen do in the 2002 season which means he sat on the bench during games and learned a lot every day in practice. By the time he cracked the starting lineup during his sophomore season he had been moved from tackle to guard. If anyone doubted he could play, all doubts should have been erased against LSU (five knockdowns against the eventual national champion in a Florida upset) and Georgia (finished fourth in the nation) when he had seven knockdown blocks and recovered a fumble in another Florida upset win.
He started every game as a junior at guard and this past year, he started every game at right tackle, switched there after the spring by Zooker's replacement, Coach Urban Meyer. He's put together a solid season despite so many changes in blocking philosophy this season. Offensive line coach John Hevesy has his own scheme and way of doing things just as Joe Wickline before him and Jimmy Ray Stephens back in that first year, 2001.
Three head coaches, four offensive coordinators and three offensive line coaches in five years creates a roller coaster effect but Butler has quietly endured and simply gone about getting his job done. If you want to tag him with a couple of defining words, call him resilient and call him consistent. Probably the greatest adjustment was this past season with the fourth offensive coordinator (Dan Mullen) in five years and a back to the basics approach by Hevesy and tight ends/offensive line coach Steve Addazio.
"Coach Addazio and Coach Hevesy have done a great job kind of getting back to what we haven't been hitting the past couple of years, and that's just fundamentals and teaching the young guys," said Butler. "We really didn't do that. Just kind of learn by osmosis and throw you in the fire. You need a little bit of that, but you need a good basis of fundamentals."
It took awhile for all the new techniques and fundamentals to kick in, and along the way, Florida's coaches had to make some adjustments of their own. The spread option dropped the option about the Georgia game and pretty much became just the spread. In the off week before the Georgia game, there were some changes made on the offense and again in the off week before FSU, more changes were implemented.
"The coaches have done a good job tweaking the offense to our strengths," said Butler. "Next year, I'm sure they'll tweak it some more. The players, they're going to step up and make the offense work for the personnel. When they do that, there's going to be a lot of upside."
He sees only positives in the future for Florida, particularly along the offensive line. Florida loses four senior starters (Butler, Mike Degory, Tavares Washington and Randy Hand) but young players have made good strides this first year.
"People like Jason Watkins … he's getting better every day," said Butler. "He's going to be a great athlete, so, when I think of that, I think of him. Carlton Medder … he's raw, untapped. He's just never been coached before. A lot of these young guys have come out and played really well.
"(Phil) Trautwein … he's been really good and he's got great technique. Working with Coach Addazio, he's going to get better. Ronnie (Wilson) … it's starting to click for him. He can play guard or center. He's starting to snap the football. He's been doing really well. Simon (Codrington) … he's almost too young to tell right now. He's with the scout team so we don't work with him too much but he's coming along. He's another hard working kid."
There will be some veterans back next year. Steven Rissler, who has backed up Degory at center has some starts at guard. Drew Miller and Jim Tartt have started at guard, also. The experienced players combined with the talented youngsters makes Butler feel the futrure will look good on teh offensive line.
"We've got four guys graduating," said Butler, "but with Steve and Drew and Trautwein … I think Ronnie's going to step right in and we've got some big-time recruits who are coming in. Those guys may be able to step right in there and maybe not start but get a lot of playing time."
As for Lance Butler, there is a good, solid future ahead, whether that's playing in the National Football League or using his education to move onward and upward in life. If he gets the chance to play for pay, it would be a dream come true but even if the dream doesn't become reality, he's ready to find success in life.
"Hopefully I get another shot to play somewhere, but if I don't, I had a great experience here," he said. "This is something that not a lot of people get to do and I had the opportunity and got to play and I think I did pretty well here.
"You know, whatever happens, happens. I graduated last week and got my degree and that's the most important thing. Once football is over, your life isn't over. If it's time to move on, I'm just glad I've got a shot to do it."
* * *
Pardon me if I get a little sentimental here.
There were 13 who came to Florida in the recruiting class of 2001 and just a handful remaining. I'm not supposed to be partial, especially considering how I appreciate the accomplishments of Degory, Jarvis Herring and Todd McCullough, but the two who became my favorites early on and have remained my favorites are Vernell Brown and Lance Butler. I knew Vernell's dad, uncle and cousin back when they played at Florida and I admired Vernell from the first time I saw him playing basketball at my alma mater, Gainesville High. I had one good jump in me a month that I tried to use wisely back when I played on the GHS basketball team in the 1960s so it was only natural that I would admire a ferocious dunker on the fast break who was only 5-8. Vernell was going to be one of my favorites at UF no matter what. That was practically preordained.
Consider Lance Butler an acquired favorite. I liked him from the day I met him because he was such a good hearted kid who obviously had more going for him than just football. I have spent the last four years watching him develop as a football player through a relentless work ethic and a quiet determination to simply prove to everyone that he can play this game and play it well. I've also spent the last four years watching him grow into the fine young man that he is now.
To Tom Butler, all I can say is if you did as good a job with your other boys as you have done with Lance, then someone should nominate you for Father of the Year. To Lance, all I can say is thanks for always taking the time to answer questions and thanks for always answering so politely, even when you were almost at the point of exhaustion. Thanks also for showing the entire Gator Nation that hard work and hustle and just being a decent human being haven't gone out of style.
I'll be watching that Outback Bowl Monday afternoon and when it's over, I'll be a little bit sad that it's the last time I'll see Lance Butler in the orange and blue. He's one Gator I'm going to miss.