Coach Jim Harbaugh discusses the performance of the Michigan offense in the loss to Utah. Angelique S. Chengelis, Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Jake Butt enjoys a good joke as much as the next guy. And owing to his last name, as well as his chosen position — he’s a tight end, of course — he has heard more than his fair share of bad ones over the years.
Yet he’s hearing them all over again in the wake of a breakout performance in Michigan’s nationally-televised season opener Thursday. Almost immediately, the Internet memes came flying his way — some old, some new, most childish, a few clever. And Butt figures he caught nearly all of them, just as he did with the passes thrown his way in the Wolverines’ 24-17 loss at Utah.
There was the video clip from the postgame press conference, the one with his coach’s oddly-timed laugh as he singled Butt out by name — repeatedly — for having a “heck of a game.”
“Yeah, people tweeted me that Vine of Coach Harbaugh kind of cracking up at my last name,” Butt said Monday, chuckling about it himself.
There was also the dated Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover with Butt photoshopped in — an image that even supermodel Chrissy Teigen noticed at the time. And then there were all those Sir Mix-a-Lot “Baby Got Back” references.
“I’ve been seeing the ‘I love Jake Butt and I cannot lie’ — that one comes up quite a bit,” Butt said, nodding. “That’s a good one.”
The name game
His cheeky Twitter handle (JBooty_88) is one another one he can’t deny, as are his family’s personalized Michigan jerseys that read “PAPA BUTT” and “MAMA BUTT” and “HEADBUTT” and so on. And just to be clear, the junior from Pickerington, Ohio, says, “I love my last name just as much as everybody else.”
Still, the attention he appreciates even more these days is on the field, where Butt showed Thursday just what an integral part of the offense he’ll be this season.
He set career highs for receptions (eight) and yards (93) in the opener. That’s the most catches for a Michigan tight end since Jay Riemersma had nine against Michigan State in 1995, and only Jim Mandich (1969) has ever had more in one game at the position for the Wolverines in the modern era.
Butt’s highlight-reel touchdown grab in the third quarter, outjumping — and outmuscling — a pair of defenders in the end zone, also made a good first impression.
“That was a big-time catch.” Harbaugh said, adding that Butt and receiver Amara Darboh (eight catches, 101 yards, TD) graded out as the Wolverines’ best players on offense against the Utes.
It’s no secret Harbaugh expects that to continue, having started fall camp by calling Butt “as good a prospect as we've coached at the college level.” At a position that Harbaugh’s offense emphasizes more than most, recruiting and developing future All-Americans like Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz among a handful of hybrid tight ends that made it to the NFL. Clearly, this 6-foot-6, 248-pounder — blessed with terrific hands and athleticism — is capable of joining them.
“Jake is as locked in as anyone and as good as anybody I’ve been around from the mental side of the game,” Harbaugh said Monday. “He’s extremely into it, and very bright. And he’s a football player. There’s the compliment that you give that … you can’t give a better one: He’s a football player.”
A healthy one now, too, which obviously helps. Butt suffered a torn ACL and meniscus tear in his right knee in February 2013, a huge setback after his freshman season. Yet after returning to game action last fall, he caught only 21 passes in 10 games. More than half of those came in the final three games of the season, and Butt draws a stark contrast — “It’s night and day,” he says — in the way he feels physically now.
“Getting in football shape rather than rehab shape,” he says, “it’s just such a difference.”
Schematically, he could probably say the same, which he essentially did Monday as he discussed some of the intricacies of Harbaugh’s offense.
“I mean, we’re sitting in the huddle calling, like, an 8-second play,” Butt said, referencing the multiple run-pass options and “kill” audibles at quarterback Jake Rudock’s disposal at the line of scrimmage. “That’s some sophisticated stuff that you don’t really see a lot of college teams doing.”
Rudock, the fifth-year graduate transfer from Iowa, got the starting nod over Butt’s roommate, Shane Morris, for a variety of reasons this season. But based on last week’s debut, it’s obvious there’s an easy connection already between the two.
“I feel like me and him are on the same page on almost everything we do,” Butt said of Rudock. “We have those option routes, and he knows where I’m going and I know where I’m going.”
And from the looks of it — all joking aside — Butt’s headed for a big year.