A winning record and a bowl game appearance are two positives measures of a football team’s season.
However, Butler’s football team was flustered by surrendering leads late in games last season, which led to three of the Grizzlies’ five losses – capped by a 39-38 defeat to Eastern Arizona in the Salt City Bowl. In that game, Butler (7-5, 4-3) led 38-24 with nine minutes remaining before Eastern stormed back on a fumble return and a 10-play drive for the victory.
The Grizzlies fielded many young players last season, with just two returning starters. Since that time, the focus has been on eradicating the foul taste of late-game defeats and finding a way to close out victories.
The first step toward doing that will occur Saturday night, when Butler, picked fifth in the Jayhawk Conference preseason poll, opens its season against Fort Scott.
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Other than blowout losses at eventual NJCAA national champion Garden City and Iowa Western, Butler’s other three losses (Eastern Arizona, Independence and Dodge City) were close, Butler coach Tim Schaffner said.
Schaffner, entering his third season at the controls, said inexperience affected the team’s play a year ago.
“Absolutely, we need to finish,” he said. “There’s no doubt that we gave away a couple (games) that typically we’re able to close out on, and that’s just a combination of special teams and offense and defense working together working as one collective team.
“That’s kind of been the theme since last spring is being able to close it out and finish a game as a team.”
As the saying goes, the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores, and such is the case for Butler, Schaffner said. Indeed, a quick perusal of the Grizzlies roster shows quite a few sophomores, led by wide receiver C.J. Sims, who was first-team all-conference and an honorable mention NJCAA All-American.
Sims (5-7, 150) caught 51 passes for 802 yards and four touchdowns a year ago.
“He’s just ‘Pocket Dynamite,’ ” Schaffner said. “He’s not going to sneak up on anybody anymore.”
With the Jayhawk Conference lifting its restrictions on out-of-state talent, Schaffner said more players like Sims (from Covington, La.) are getting opportunities.
“There will be no shortage of dynamic playmakers on Saturdays,” he said.
Butler has a study in contrasts at quarterback with two sophomores. Schaffner said he plans to utilize former Derby standout Brady Rust and transfer Chris Helbig depending on the situation.
Rust (5-11, 185), who guided the Panthers to a Class 6A title in 2015, is more mobile; Helbig (6-4, 210), a transfer from Colorado, is more in the mold of past Butler quarterbacks such as Chad Wilmott, Zach Mettenberger, Zac Taylor, Chandler Whitmer and Billy Cosh.
“Brady knows how to win, they were an offensive juggernaut at Derby his senior year,” Schaffner said. “And Chris has done a really nice job growing into the position, particularly during camp.
“Brady is more of a dual threat – that’s what he did in high school. He can use his legs to get himself out of trouble and create things. Chris is more about getting that ball out on time. There’ll be packages and opportunities for both of them.”
The Grizzlies also return their top two rushers from a year ago in sophomores Kevon Abrams (5-9, 190) and Isaiah Truss (5-8, 195). Abrams rushed for 1,166 yards on 185 carries and nine touchdowns despite missing games because of injuries.
“We’re really excited to have Kevon Abrams back,” Schaffner said. “Kevon’s got elite speed. He has really grown into the position as well, really matured over the last year. Isaiah and Vinnie Shabazz (5-9, 200) are back. All three of those guys aren’t that big but run with surprising power.”
Defensively, the Grizzlies will have to replace a number of players, including leading tackler Sean Bernard and fellow linebacker Jake Seurer, as well as cornerback Octavious Morgan, a first-team all-conference pick.
Still, Schaffner said the unit will be improved.
“We’ll be better,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of grit about us. We’ll be all right.”
Highland at Dodge City, 6 p.m.
Ellsworth (Iowa) at Garden City, 7 p.m.
Coffeyville at Hutchinson, noon
Iowa Western at Independence, 6 p.m.
Fort Scott at Butler, 7 p.m.