When he was a member of Matt Campbell’s coaching staff at Toledo several years ago, Bryan Gasser had caught wind of a lanky, athletic wide receiver from the Houston area. But the Rockets did not have a scholarship to offer at the time, and the receiver fell off their radar.
Gasser arrived at Iowa State in December 2015 after the school had hired Campbell from Toledo to replace Paul Rhoads and discovered that Hakeem Butler, the wide receiver who had piqued the staff’s interest, had redshirted his freshman year for the Cyclones.
“When we got here, there weren’t a whole lot of names that we were familiar with that were on the roster,” Gasser said. “We just hadn’t been in a whole lot of competition in terms of recruiting for the same type of guys that were here at Iowa State. So I was certainly at the standpoint of, I’m really curious to see what this kid is all about and how he looks and what he’s been doing during the couple months that he was on campus.”
In the past three seasons, Butler, who grew up in Baltimore, has steadily progressed to establish himself as one of the top wideouts in the nation heading into Friday’s Valero Alamo Bowl matchup with No. 13 Washington State.
Butler, now a 22-year-old redshirt junior, leads No. 24 Iowa State in receptions (51), touchdown catches (nine) and receiving yards (1,126) — the latter setting a single-season school record. His 22.1 yards per catch average ranks second among all Football Bowl Subdivision receivers.
A second-team All-Big 12 selection, Butler is a finalist for the Tyler Rose Earl Campbell Award, which is given to the top offensive player at the Division I level who mirrors former Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell’s traits and either was born in Texas, graduated from a Texas high school, or attends a college or university in Texas.
Butler, who is rising in the eyes of several NFL draft experts, is matter of fact about his individual success.
“Everybody has high expectations for themselves, but you never expect it to go this well,” he said. “I was just trying to be a leader and a good player for my team and be there on third down or whenever they needed me to make a play. I’ve done that and more apparently.”
His production is not limited to the field. He walked in a graduation ceremony last weekend after earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies in only seven semesters.
Butler credits his determination to his upbringing in the Greenmount/33rd Street neighborhood of Baltimore, an area known for drugs and violence.
“When you grow up in Baltimore, a lot of people don’t really have that many goals,” he said. “So I always had goals and aspirations bigger than Baltimore, so that I could make it big and come back and give back. That’s always been my drive and motivation.”
He said his work ethic was passed on from his mother, Sheryl, who worked at the post office to support him, his brother Khalil and sister Amber before being diagnosed with breast cancer. She died Oct. 18, 2012.
“It was one of the biggest things to ever happen to me,” Butler said. “In so many ways, she gives me daily motivation to wake up and try to do right by her. But it’s tough for a kid. It makes you grow up faster than you should have to.”
At 16, Butler and Khalil moved to the Houston area to live with his aunt and uncle, Marian and Aaron Harrison. They joined their cousins Aaron and Andrew Harrison, who starred in basketball at Kentucky and are playing professionally in Turkey and the NBA, respectively.
Having played organized football since the age of 8, Butler was shocked by the rabid devotion to football in Texas. Also a standout in basketball at Travis High School, he chose Iowa State over Houston, New Mexico State and McNeese State.
Gasser said he has worked with Butler to take advantage of his 6-foot-6, 219-pound frame to shield passes from opposing defenders and attack balls at the peak of his jumps. Ten of the Cyclones’ 13 longest plays from scrimmage have come with Butler on the receiving end.
“We rely on him a lot,” Gasser said. “Our philosophy is that players make plays, and he is definitely one of our primary playmakers. We move him around a lot, all over the field, but it’s always in the forefront of our minds that when we need a critical play, you’ve seen it multiple times this year when he’s scored the game-winner or scored the touchdown that extends the lead and puts the game out of hand or made the catch at the end of the game to help us run out the clock. So he’s definitely a guy that is always part of our game plan in terms of putting him in a position where he can become available to the quarterback.”
Butler’s NFL draft stock is rising. He’s the No. 7 wide receiver prospect according to CBS Sports, and NFL.com senior analyst Gil Brandt told The Des Moines Register last month, “He’s one of the premier wide receivers in the country.”
The NFL attention is bewildering to Butler.
“That’s crazy,” he said with a chuckle. “You never expect to be up there. You dream about this, but you never expect for it to actually come to fruition.”
But Butler said his top priority is trying to help Iowa State (8-4) to a victory over Washington State (10-2) in Friday’s Alamo Bowl at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
“It’s something you have to think about, but right now, I’m just focused on the bowl game,” he said. “I just want to keep being me. I can’t really try to be anybody else. I just want to do what I’m capable of doing and see where the chips fall.”