Running back Butler good with whatever role Ticats have in mind for him
HAMILTON — James Butler gives the Hamilton Tiger-Cats something they haven't had in a very long time.
The five-foot-nine, 210-pound running back signed a two-year deal with Hamilton as a CFL free agent after rushing for 1,060 yards last season with the B.C. Lions. The Ticats haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2009-10 when DeAndra' Cobb ran for 1,207 and 1,173 yards, respectively.
Butler was surprised to hear Hamilton hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2010 but isn't heading into the season intent on ending that drought.
"I never would've went into last year saying I was going to be the next 1,000-yard rusher in B.C.," Butler said. "All I can do is go out every week and give the best I can.
"If I get 1,000 yards, awesome. All that really matters is trying to win as many games as we can to hopefully be in the last one that's going to be here this year."
That would be the '23 Grey Cup on Nov. 19 at Tim Hortons Field. The Ticats appeared in the '21 Grey Cup, also at Tim Hortons Field, losing 33-25 in overtime to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Hamilton last won the Grey Cup in 1999, the CFL's longest championship drought. Butler is prepared to play whatever role he's required to within the Ticats' offence.
"You're always going to get the maximum effort out of me, like it always has been," he said. "Sometimes it's a heavy run game, sometimes it's a heavy pass game.
"For me personally, whatever job and opportunity I get in a game I just want to make the most of it."
Hamilton was ranked seventh in CFL rushing last season at 91.6 yards per game. Wes Hills, now with the USFL's New Orleans Breakers, was its rushing leader with 384 yards (5.6-yard average) and a TD.
In fact, Hamilton's top three rushers combined for 1,054 yards and three TDs, less than what Butler accumulated with B.C. Only Calgary (league-best 135.3 yards), Winnipeg (113.5) and Edmonton (102.4) averaged over 100 yards on the ground with No. 4 B.C. being close (99.7 yards).
"We just want (Butler) to bring his skill set," said Orlondo Steinauer, Hamilton's head coach/president of football operations. "I thought Wes Hills was a downhill back, we thought Don Jackson did a great job of revamping our game and (Sean Thomas) Erlington coming into their spot so we felt we were adequate at that.
"When you acquire something you don't try to force-fit it. We just want him to bring his skill set rather than say, 'This is what we want to be.' He will be a big part of it but obviously it starts up front with our O-line."
Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell was Hamilton's biggest off-season acquisition but it also added Joel Figueroa, a towering six-foot-five 320-pound offensive tackle, in free agency. Figueroa will certainly be counted on to keep Mitchell clean but also bring some nastiness up front and help provide Butler with running room.
"Obviously I love having big Fig here with me," Butler said. "But I love this offensive line.
"They're huge guys, it's probably the tallest offensive line I've ever played with … people might have a hard time seeing me behind them."
Butler spent two seasons with B.C., rushing for 1,557 yards on 311 carries (five-yard average) and nine TDs in 28 regular-season games. He also added 92 catches for 627 yards and five touchdowns.
Butler began his CFL career with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2019 but was released during training camp. William Powell, now with Ottawa, ran for 1,093 yards (5.1-yard average) and 12 TDs that season.
Butler signed with B.C. in 2020 but didn't play until '21 due to the global pandemic. However, Butler remembers leaving Saskatchewan wondering about his future in the pass-happy Canadian game.
"It was an adjustment," he said. "I remember telling myself, 'OK, maybe Canada isn't for me, it's a passing league.'
"But coming up here two years later and being a little bit more mature and able to see and learn the game a little bit more, there is a lane for the run game. It's obviously not the biggest part but if you look at teams that have gone far in the playoffs, most likely they've had pretty good run games."
Butler has spent a lot of time in camp not only getting acclimated to his new surroundings but also learning Hamilton offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell's offence. Butler said there's a lot more to the running game than merely giving him the ball and letting him do his thing.
"Yeah, 100 per cent," Butler said with a chuckle. "Every offensive line is different, they block things differently.
"Sometimes guys are pulling, sometimes some guys have to work a double-team and you've also got to be able to manipulate the linebackers. There's a lot more to it."
Butler enters the season with no pre-set goals regarding the number of carries or touches he'd like to have.
"I've never been that guy," he said. "I want to excel in whatever role I'm in.
"If I'm going to be in pass protection and I have to pick up a blitzer, I want to do that with the same ferocity and tenacity as I would if they gave me the ball to run two or three times in a row. That's because I know how many people would love to be in that position to pass protect or run with or catch the ball. The team having the confidence to put you on the field is enough to know you go out there and give it your best shot."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 22, 2023.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press