Jake Butt proud of how far he and Wolverines have come

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Jake Butt is Michigan's career leader among tight ends with 135 receptions for 1,618 yards.

Ann Arbor — As Jake Butt’s college career nears its conclusion, he has found himself taking stock of his four seasons and thinking about legacies.

He wonders how he and his fellow seniors will be remembered.

Butt earned Big Ten Tight End of the Year for the second straight season and last week was awarded the Mackey Award given to the nation’s top tight end. He was voted a captain this season by his teammates and with 135 receptions for 1,618 career yards, Butt is the Michigan program’s all-team leader as a tight end for receptions and yards.

His legacy seems set as the Wolverines (10-2) prepare to face Florida State in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30. Often when he was on the field during games watching past Michigan teams being honored, he found himself thinking about the future.

“You wonder, ‘Are we going to get invited back someday?’ ” Butt said recently. “I always like to take that moment to take it in and wonder what our identity will be. In a sense we’re forming our own identity right now of laying a foundation for successful years to come.”

Butt wonders because after his first two seasons at Michigan — which went 7-6 and 5-7 and saw a coaching firing and change in athletic director — the program was in a messy state before Jim Harbaugh was hired. Since then, the Wolverines have gone 10-3 and this season were close to making the college football playoff.

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“Two years ago at this time we were sitting in a team meeting room wondering who our next coach would be and you look at where we are now, what we’ve built here, it’s satisfying in that sense,” he said.

Most important, he feels good about the future.

“The confidence is in those guys, the confidence is in coach Harbaugh, the confidence is in the identity of this program now,” Butt said. “We’re not going to go into a season or a game unprepared. We’re not leaving something up to chance.

“That’s the mentality and identity of this program now. We’re not going to talk about it, we’re going to be about it. We know that. I think people from the outside looking in know that that Michigan is back where it was and where it needs to be and where it will be for a long time.”

Their legacy stems, in part, from their ability to weather the down seasons and the coaching change and their ability to embrace a new staff and trust in them.

“Why do you come to Michigan?” Butt said. “We all came here to win. The first two years especially have been really hard. But you look at the majority of guys in our class and the guys in front of us, no one’s folded, no one’s turned their back on this program. We went through a coaching change. The majority of us stayed.

“The guys that built this program to what it is today are guys that have seen a lot of tough things and haven’t changed and they haven’t folded. All they’ve done has gone back to work. Every offseason people are calling for our heads, our coach’s heads, our athletic director’s head, and we just blocked it out and got back to work. We’re proud of the foundation we’ve laid with the help of our coaching staff and other people.”

Butt remembers the 17-year-old “skinny, skinny, immature” kid who arrived in Ann Arbor from Pickerington, Ohio, and had no idea what his four years would hold.

Now he’s on the brink of leading Michigan to a potential 11-win season and an NFL career.

Jake Butt

“All I knew was I had to work hard, that I couldn’t be outworked by anyone else — that goes for the classroom, that goes for the football field — and I knew I was going to make some mistakes along the way,” Butt said. “I had to learn from those. I knew I was going to have some success along the way. I couldn’t pat myself on the back.

“I think over these past four years I’ve matured so much, more than I can put into words. It’s hard to capture it all how much I feel I’ve matured over these past four years. And that’s a credit to football, to really backing you into a corner and forcing you to mature. That’s a credit to both coaches, one that gave me an opportunity to play here and another that put me in a position to succeed to where I am today.”

Injuries can make or break players. Butt suffered a torn knee ligament in February 2014 and worked hard to accelerate his recovery. The rehab process solidified how much he loves the game.

“I love football, there’s no question, but you can confirm it in that sense,” Butt said. “I’ve always considered myself an extremely hard worker and I’ve never taken a rep off. But if there’s ever a doubt in my mind, once you don’t have a choice because you’re not even getting a chance to run that gasser because you can’t run, then you realize you want to run.”

Butt’s greatest honor, he said, has been being a captain along with defensive lineman Chris Wormley. After spring practice, Butt told his position coach, Jay Harbaugh, he wanted to be a team captain.

“He said, ‘Listen, you are the captain,’ ” Butt said. “When I got elected, he said, ‘The great thing is you don’t have to do anything different.’ That’s what I looked at it as. Me and Chris, and a lot of guys are deserving of that and are leaders. We didn’t have to change anything. We led the way we were leading.”

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Wormley said Butt’s on-field success is there for everyone to see, but who he is as a person and as a leader is the best part.

“The younger guys look up to him. It’s crazy how much they respect him,” Wormley said. “Jake is a great player, and he’s a great leader. He’s that emotional leader we look for. I’m glad to be standing next to him as a captain.”

Butt recalls a pivotal moment after the rain-delayed loss to Utah at Michigan Stadium in 2014. He found out something about himself and in the process about the group with which he came in as a freshman.

“I went into (then-tight ends) coach (Dan) Ferrigno’s office and I looked at him and said, ‘Coach, what do you need from me?’ ” Butt said. “I wasn’t playing a lot because of my ACL. I told him I didn’t come here to lose. I got tears in my eyes and said I’m so proud to wear this block M on my chest, I’m so proud to wear this maize and blue and you name it whatever you need from me to help this team succeed and this program to turn around in the right direction, I’ll do it. And I meant that.

“And even when the coaches left, that was my mentality going forward. It hasn’t changed and that’s the mentality of this team. You can’t say it enough. This senior class, we’ve seen it all. We’ve been booed in our own stadium. That’s something you don’t come to Michigan and expect. You don’t in a million years expect that to happen, but we never folded, we never turned our back on this program, we never turned our back on this fan base. All we did was believe in one another and get back to work. With that mentality you can look at where we’re at now and be pretty proud.”