April 17, 2024

O’Leary: Butler sees opportunity in Hamilton

Christian Bender/CFL.ca

Just a few weeks out from training camp opening, James Butler is buoyed by optimism.

Picturing himself playing on Tim Hortons Field, he sees a healthy Bo Levi Mitchell with a wealth of talented receivers at his disposal. In front of Mitchell and Butler stands a menacing and healthy offensive line that can keep Mitchell upright and clear pathways for Butler on the ground, where he’d like to have his second 1,000-yard rushing season in Ticats’ colours and his third consecutive, after hitting that mark in 2022 with the BC Lions.

With defensive changes to the roster and an offensively-minded head coach in Scott Milanovich, Butler sees plenty of opportunity for this year’s Ticats team.

We caught up with Butler at the CFL content shoot last week in Hamilton, where he shared all of his thoughts on where the team stands as it heads into a brand new season.

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Q: What’s your feel for this Tiger-Cats team right now? 

A: I’m excited. I feel like we we made a lot of a lot of key pieces which I definitely like, we brought a lot of the guys back that I wanted you know obviously except Jameer, but we brought a lot of guys, a lot of key pieces back and I thought we had a lot of more cohesiveness. We’ve kind of got a new staff, new coach staff, but like it was nice because you know, coach Scott was there before for half the year but there’s a lot more cohesiveness, there’s a lot a lot more energy in the building. I can definitely tell.

Q: Have you been in touch with Scott Milanovich much through the off-season? What have those conversations been like?

A: I just met with him yesterday (April 9). We’re excited. He’s super excited. Obviously, coach Scott comes with an awesome resume. But he’s just a player’s coach that’s going to hold you to a higher standard. He holds himself to a very high standard, so he’s going to hold you to an even higher standard.

Q: He seems like he has no problem telling you what he needs from you, have you seen that?

A: (Laughs) Yeah. I remember, it wasn’t long into meeting coach Scott (last year) when he became the new OC. He said something to me that rubbed me the wrong way. I just thought, ‘OK, why doesn’t he like me, what did I do? What did I do already to show that he doesn’t like me?’ But I think I had a good BC game. And he said, ‘Great game, James.’ I was surprised. And I said, ‘I thought you didn’t like me.’ He said, ‘It’s not that I didn’t like you, I just thought I could get more out of you, I knew you could do more.’

Coach Scott is definitely a guy that is going to tell you straight up. He’s going to keep it real with you, he’s not going to sugarcoat it with you. He’s going to tell you exactly how he feels and he doesn’t care about your feelings (laughs).

Q: That can be helpful though, can’t it? It makes for an honest and productive environment. 

A: Exactly. I know whenever I go talk to coach Scott, he’s going to give me the real. He’s not going to sugarcoat it, he’s not going to say something just to please my feelings. He’s going to say, ‘This is what you need to work on. This is what I didn’t like from you. This is what I do like from you. And this is what I want to see from going forward.’

Butler made the move to Hamilton in free agency in 2023 and proved to himself that he can play at a high level anywhere (Christian Bender/CFL.ca)

Q: It’s a simple question, but how important is a healthy Bo Levi Mitchell for your team’s success this year? 

A: It’s huge. A healthy Bo Levi, cohesiveness on the offence and a healthy offensive line. You know, we kind of played musical chairs a little bit for a while on the offensive line. Then Bo dealt with some injuries which which happens but I think a healthy Bo, I feel like even I got to catch with Bo a little bit yesterday. So just an excited Bo — well you know, he was excited last year too, but then you when you get a couple of injuries it’s hard to keep that same fire. But you can definitely see the fires still in Bo’s eyes, so I think a healthy Bo is huge.

Q: What does it say about you guys that despite Bo’s injuries, you had a rookie quarterback fill in for eight games and you still made the playoffs? 

A: It just shows that it’s there that we have it in the building, that we had on the team. It was just trying to find it had to figure it out. I feel like it shows our ability to never quit, to keep going to, to just…next man up and whatever is thrown at us, we’re just going to have to deal with it and keep moving forward. We can’t sit here and lick our wounds.

Q: How did it feel for you to come to a new team and break that 1,000-yard rushing mark, which hadn’t happened in Hamilton since 2010?

A: To me, it proved that I could go to any organization and and be a contributor and prove that I can play in this league at a high level. Obviously it was a little nerve wracking going into a new place, not really knowing how am I going to fit, is it going to work? Am I going to be able to still be a dominant player at this new organization who hadn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher in over 10 years.

It did kind of give me a validation, like, ‘OK you can do this, it’s still still just football. You’ve learned now what it takes to reach that milestone.’ Doing it during back-to-back years with two different programs, that’s a really cool feat. No one’s ever going to be able to take that away from me.

Butler has big goals for himself and the Ticats in 2024 (Christian Bender/CFL.ca)

Q: When you look at the Ticats’ roster right now, what are you excited about? 

A: I really like the defence. I was talking to Jamal Peters and I saw him without pads and how big he is. That’s a big DB. So I’m excited about Jamal Peters.

I’m excited about a few of the receivers we brought in. (Brendan) O’Leary-Orange, he was with me at Nevada for a little bit. Obviously Tim (White), Tim’s a dog, Terry (Godwin II), Terry’s going to have a breakout year. Also I’m really excited about Omar Davis. He’s due for a huge year.  even guys like (Justin) McGriff had probably the best training camp, but just on unfortunate circumstance that he got hurt during training camp. So that’s gonna be exciting. And then obviously, Taylor (Powell) having to have played a lot coming in as a more experienced guy, healthy Bo, there’s a lot (laughs). Obviously, having my whole offensive line back too is huge for me, but uh, yes, I’m excited. There’s a lot to be excited about. And I feel like I love Scott. Scott likes to run the ball, so, (laughs), I gotta get behind that. And then the d-line, we got some really good d-lineman coming in, too.

Q: Are you used to Hamilton now? Do you miss living in Vancouver? 

A: (Laughs) Everyone always asks me that, like what’s better, Hamilton or BC? I feel like they’re different in different ways. Obviously you can’t replicate BC’s atmosphere, the mountains and the ocean. I thought it was one of the best cities in the world, it was like a vacation. But you also can’t replicate Hamilton’s grittiness, their fans’ passion, the passion that’s in their tailgate, the atmosphere during their games, how rowdy they are. How they have our backs, I love that. I’m a midwest, Chicago guy and my mom can come to almost every game, she just drives up. There’s pros and cons to both of them, I love both.

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