AMES, Iowa (AP) — When Iowa State coach Matt Campbell challenged Hakeem Butler to become the Cyclones' go-to receiver this year, Butler simply nodded and went to work.
Now, with the No. 23 Cyclones (5-3, 4-2 Big 12) heading into the stretch run of their season, Butler has more than met that challenge.
He leads the team in receptions, yardage and touchdowns. His average of 24 yards a catch leads the nation. Of Iowa State's 11 longest plays from scrimmage, Butler owns nine of them. Most were highlight reel-worthy.
"I'm in Hakeem's class. I came in with him," defensive back Braxton Lewis said Tuesday. "When he makes those plays, to this day it still amazes me every time he does it."
A 6-foot-6, 225-pound junior, Butler is freakishly athletic. He is strong enough to ward off defenders, fast enough to outrun them and has the hops and size to outjump them.
Against Oklahoma earlier this year, Butler shed four would-be tacklers on a 51-yard touchdown play. Last week at Kansas, he reached behind him to catch the ball over the middle, turned upfield and easily outran the pursuit on an 83-yard touchdown.
Less than 3 minutes later, he made an even more jaw-dropping play.
Running a deep route against cornerback Hasan Defense, Butler leaped over the defender to make the catch and then, while holding the ball with his left hand, used his right to fling Defense off him as if they were playing a kids' game of crack the whip. Defense recovered but couldn't catch Butler before he somersaulted into the end zone.
"I think Hakeem, bar none, is one of the most athletically talented guys I've ever had the opportunity to coach at the wide receiver position," Campbell said.
Campbell inherited Butler when he arrived at Iowa State from Toledo in late November 2015. Former coach Paul Rhoads had signed Butler, who had no other offers from Power Five schools, at the urging of assistant coach Louis Ayeni, who was intrigued by Butler's size and athleticism. Iowa State got onto him late in the recruiting process and Butler, who was living in Travis, Texas, after growing up in Baltimore, committed two days before signing day.
After redshirting in 2015, Butler played sparingly during Campbell's first season, catching just nine balls. He increased his production significantly last fall, catching 41 passes for 697 yards and seven touchdowns, but he was only a secondary target behind senior Allen Lazard. Still, he had two 100-yard receiving games, including a five-catch, 111-yard performance against Memphis in the Liberty Bowl.
With Lazard no longer around, the team needed a new primary receiver. Enter Butler, who has 33 receptions for 791 yards and eight touchdowns heading into Saturday's home game with Baylor (5-4, 3-3).
"I thought his offseason was maybe as good as anybody in our football program," Campbell said. "So it was really fun to watch that maturity. He's really done that all three years since I've been here, gotten better every year and really has put himself in a great position to be a phenomenal player."
Some would argue he's close to that already. He has topped 100 yards receiving in each of his last three games, has caught a touchdown pass in each of the last four and has worked his way onto the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top receiver. Some players make those lists on reputation; Butler did it with his performance.
And if Campbell is to be believed, the best is yet to come.
"That's one thing I'm really excited about because I think there's still another level or two that he can get to in terms of some of the detail of playing the wide receiver position," Campbell said. "I think you'll only see him get better because he does have that passion to be really, really special."
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