April 2, 2012
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New Mexico Lobo Football - Spring Practice 2012
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
If you heard a rumor that Lobo A.J. Butler plans to return to New Mexico football for one more season in 2013 so he can play quarterback, well, it's not true. Not that this versatile Lobo wouldn't mind giving it a go.
"If I could come back another year and that's where they needed me ..." says Butler through a sly smile.
This UNM senior has done just about everything Lobo football has asked him to do and this spring that request has been to move from the safety position to the inside (Will) linebacker position.
That move places an interesting asterisk on Butler's resume at UNM: The Lobos have only one returning running back with a 100-yard game to his credit and that ball carrier will be out to make sure no Lobo enemies rush for 100 yards.
You can probably put another asterisk on Butler's personal resume, too: Now, he gets to eat.
"This is great. I love to eat," said Butler. "I can have steaks all day now, everything. I was cutting (eating) back some when I was at safety, but now I can eat whatever."
And almost whenever.
Butler said his weight coming into spring ball was close to 220 and he needed to drop around 20 in order to hang with the fleet receivers. Now, he is closer to the line of scrimmage and will be fighting off blocks from the 300 pounders that charge off the line looking for a linebacker to ruin.
"It's more fun to gain weight than to lose it," said Butler. "Now, I have to eat and get bigger. I probably need to be at least 220, but I can get up to 240, 250."
Butler says his favorite foods are baby back ribs and seafood. "I'm from Florida (St. Petersburg)," said Butler. "When the guys get together, I cook the seafood."
Butler, who will not give out his recipe for shrimp, came to New Mexico from St. Petersburg to run with the football and he did that in his first two seasons, galloping for 102 yards on 26 carries in 2009 vs. Texas Tech. He was the first Lobo freshman with 20-plus carries since All-American DonTrell Moore turned the trick in 2002.
Obviously, Butler showed promise as a glory back. But when UNM came up short in the secondary in 2010, Butler was moved to the safety position. Butler said he played running back, quarterback, safety, receiver, long snapper and linebacker in prep ball.
Butler was good in that safety spot, too. He had 10 tackles against Air Force and 11 vs. Brigham Young and returned a fumble 27 yards for a dramatic touchdown against Utah.
He saw the field less in 2011 as the former UNM staff pushed its own recruits to the front of the line. Butler went from 50 tackles (eight games) in 2010, fifth on the team, to 15 in 2011.
Butler didn't complain. He moved to the special teams and did what he could to contribute. That's what he is doing in 2012 as UNM's move to the 3-4 defense left the Lobo coaching staff searching for some more linebacker-type bodies.
"We like his size and his athleticism at the linebacker spot," said Kevin Cosgrove, UNM's inside linebackers' coach. "It's a good opportunity for him to be a major contributor. You can't take a small corner and move him there, but (Butler) had size."
The move was just fine for Butler and not simply because it expands his menu. "You always have to take one for the team," said Butler. "Whatever they need, I'll be there. I'll do whatever it takes to be on the field."
Butler's responsibilities at the "Will" (weak side) position include stopping the run and stopping the pass. He likes the duality of the chore. He also is challenged by the cerebral demands that come from being closer to the line of scrimmage.
"Of all the positions I've ever played, I think linebacker is maybe the hardest I have ever played," said Butler. "There are so many keys and so many reads that you have to know pre-snap.
"The safety reads pass first and then reacts to run. The linebacker is a whole different ball game because you have to make quick decisions pre-snap and you don't have as much time to react. And you need to be right.
"I have to come out here and react without thinking. As I get more into the playbook and watch more film, I'll get better."
The offense that Butler is looking at in spring ball is a quick and intense challenge. The Lobos' multiple looks out of the Pistol offense do not make it easy on a rookie linebacker. There are choices to be made - quickly.
"The further you are away from the ball, the more time you have to read," said Cosgrove. "As you get closer, reactions have to be quicker.
"I'm very pleased with the way A.J. is performing. He is playing better than I thought he would be at this time. I know he has the ability to contribute at the position. He just has to work hard and continue to improve."
For Butler, that should be the easiest challenge of his new position. If the Lobos want him to work hard, consider it done. There is no "I" in team and in four years there has never been an `I" in Butler.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and Sports Columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com.