By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
In the hours before the Indianapolis Colts’ most recent victory at Jacksonville, cornerback Darius Butler spotted Mike Mayock on the turf at EverBank Field.
The NFL Network analyst is one of the most respected talent evaluators currently on television, and Butler remembered him from his predraft workouts in 2009. Mayock had been high on the defender as a prospect coming out of the University of Connecticut.
Now, as Butler was about to make his first start with the Colts, he sought some sage advice.
As Mayock later shared with viewers on the national broadcast, he told Butler this was likely his final opportunity in the NFL. It might not have been what the fourth-year defensive back wanted to hear, but it was what Mayock felt needed to be said.
And Butler took the words to heart.
“He did say that, and I told him I’d take advantage of my opportunity when given,” Butler said this week at the Colts’ training facility. “And I feel like I want to just keep doing that, keep building on it.”
First-year Indianapolis general manager Ryan Grigson threw Butler a lifeline in late September, claiming him off the NFL’s waiver pile and giving him one more chance to live up to the promise Mayock and the New England Patriots saw in him three years ago.
A former second-round pick, Butler had just four tackles on defense, four more on special teams and one pass deflection in his first five game weeks with the Colts.
He also missed two contests because of injury.
Ironically, it was an injury to two other players — starting cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Vontae Davis — that finally gave Butler his big break in Jacksonville.
With Mayock’s words still ringing in his ears, the cornerback made an unforgettable impression.
He intercepted two passes and recovered a fumble, single-handedly doubling Indianapolis’ takeaway total for the season and returning one of the picks for a touchdown in a 27-10 win against the Jaguars.
In the process, Butler became the first Colts defender with three or more takeaways in a game since Mike Prior in 1992 and just the fourth overall since the team moved to Indianapolis in 1984.
For his efforts, he also was named the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Week.
“I think sometimes when guys bounce around after a couple of seasons, then all of the sudden they have to take notice that, ‘Hey I’ve got to square up and start studying and understanding exactly what they want to do,’” Indianapolis defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. “And that’s what he’s done.”
It appears he’ll have the chance to continue doing it for the forseeable future. Powers’ toe injury was deemed bad enough to end his season, and Davis will miss at least one more week with a knee injury.
That means Butler will again start opposite Cassius Vaughn today as his story takes another remarkable turn.
The Colts (6-3) visit the Patriots (6-3), the team that gave Butler just eight starts over two seasons before waiving him following training camp last year.
He spent a season with the Carolina Panthers before again being waived in final cuts in August. But it’s clear his experience in New England remains fresh in his mind.
“We’re both 6-3 right now, and obviously it’s a big important game, especially in our conference, the AFC,” Butler said. “But I would say it definitely means a little bit more to go back up there and have this opportunity to play against my old team. So I’m looking forward to it.”
He’ll face an offense that leads the league with an average of 430.3 yards per game. New England has a wealth of weapons in the passing game with tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd.
The Patriots also have the league’s fifth-ranked running game, led by Stevan Ridley with 814 yards and six touchdowns.
But the engine driving it all remains Tom Brady. In his 13th season, the veteran quarterback has completed 64.8 percent of his passes for 2,645 yards with 18 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
“He’s incredible,” Butler said. “Even when you’re practicing with him every day, you’re still shocked at some of the things and some of the places he puts the ball. He’s special. There’s only a handful of guys who can do the things that he does, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
If that challenge provides Butler with the same motivation as Mayock’s words in Jacksonville, the Colts could again shock the league.
No matter the outcome today, it appears the well-traveled corner finally has found a home in the NFL.
“That’s the whole beauty of the mantra ‘Next Man Up,’” Colts interim head coach/offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. “Don’t give it up once you get it. Ryan gave him an opportunity to reclaim his career, and he’s making the best of it.”