Butler Helps PSU Uncover Pass Attack

Joe Paterno didn't need a CSI team to find the Nittany Lions' missing passing game. A crew of talented young receivers, including redshirt freshman and former defensive back Deon Butler, did the trick.

Deon Butler hopes to get into forensic science when he graduates from Penn State. He wants to solve crimes using tiny scraps of evidence, just like TV detectives do.

“They can solve crimes from years before with things like a hair strand,” Butler said. “Some of this stuff is so amazing. It fascinates me every time I come across it on TV. … By my senior year [of high school], I realized that's where I wanted to head toward in my career.”

Butler, a redshirt freshman wide receiver, is already hard at work on an investigation of sorts: the mysterious disappearance of Penn State's passing game. The Nittany Lions finished ninth in the Big Ten last year after averaging only 180.8 passing yards per game. The year before, they finished eighth at 191.3 yards a game.

Where did the Lions' once-formidable big-play offense go? Turns out it may have been hiding in plain sight. Penn State appears not to have lost the will or the know-how needed to field a respectable offense, although some of the team's more ardent critics might beg to differ with the latter. But there's no doubt that it lacked the right personnel.

With Butler's help, Penn State's fortunes may be about to change. Last Saturday against Cincinnati, the former walk-on skimmed the turf to catch a 45-yard touchdown pass from Michael Robinson. It was one of several long passes the Nittany Lions completed in their 42-24 victory over the Bearcats, with freshman Justin King catching a 59-yard touchdown pass and classmate Derrick Williams adding a 41-yard catch to set up Austin Scott's scoring run. While it will surely take more than that to convince an understandably skeptical public the Lions are truly back, the win was a step in the right direction.

“I think we are OK, I really do,” Joe Paterno said. “I think the kids are going to be good. They are smart, work hard and they are young. I think there is a great future in that whole part of our football game.”

Butler wasn't supposed to be a part of that future. Although he played wide receiver at Hylton High in suburban Washington, D.C., leading the team to the Virginia Class AAA state title game as a senior, he was stationed at defensive back after enrolling at Penn State as a walk-on. But he also practiced occasionally at wideout as a member of the scout team last fall, and he impressed the coaches with his speed and hands. This past spring, they decided to take a longer look.

“Jay Paterno tapped me on the shoulder and said 'I want you to start running some routes with the wideouts and getting your timing down with Michael,' ” Butler said. “Basically, that's when I knew they were serious about putting me at wide receiver. To me, it didn't matter. I just wanted to contribute to the team in any way. It was actually a great opportunity for me with all the wideouts being so young. Everybody was pretty much having a fresh start, and I knew playing time at wide receiver was more likely to happen than at cornerback.”

Two games into his first season, Butler has caught two passes for 73 yards, helping restore the big-play capability the Lions have lacked in recent years. According to Robinson, the keys for Butler are athletic ability and the tough attitude he developed while on defense.

“He brings more speed, more tenacity as far as blocking, and aggressiveness to the table,” the quarterback said. “[While playing scout-team DB], he probably had an interception every week.”

The real test will come when the team begins taking on Big Ten opponents. At 5-foot-10, 167 pounds, Butler isn't a physically imposing wideout and will have to find a way to cope with big, aggressive cornerbacks who will jam him at the line. He got a taste of the rough stuff against the Bearcats, and while he and his fellow wide receivers were able to take advantage, Michigan and Ohio State figure to pose a far bigger challenge.

“We know some teams are going to challenge us like that,” said Butler, who has already been awarded a scholarship. “Teams are going to try to attack us with zones, and when we get into Big Ten play, we're going to see teams with bigger corners that are going to try to use the Cincinnati technique and play up in our face. So definitely each week we're trying to prove to ourselves and to other people that we're ready to play.”

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