INDIANAPOLIS – Arizona State’s star wide receiver, N’Keal Harry, sat on a raised podium at the NFL Scouting combine Friday afternoon and answered questions from a throng of reporters.
Thirty minutes later, Emmanuel Butler replicated the scenario on a miniature scale: He posted up at a small plastic table, encircled by only a handful of media types.
It was not a surprise. The Northern Arizona wide receiver is used to being overlooked.
“I’ve always kind of had a chip on my shoulder,” Butler said. “I’m no more than 30 miles away from Arizona State, and they didn’t take a chance on me. I’m an hour away from the University of Arizona, and they didn’t take a chance on me. Northern Arizona was the only place that gave me an opportunity.”
Even though Butler’s route to the combine didn’t involve a stop at a prominent college, he made it here, while plenty of his big-school brethren fell short. Butler measured in with the type of size -- 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds – that could intrigue scouts. He didn't run the 40-yard dash, and his time in that drill should help clarify his placement among the prospects.
Butler was a tight end at Phoenix Mountain Pointe High School, but major programs worried he was too small to play the position in college and too slow to be a receiver. Butler dispelled that narrative by setting numerous school records with the Lumberjacks, finishing with 187 catches for 3,222 yards and 33 touchdowns in four seasons.
He had two 1,000-yard receiving seasons and averaged 17.2 yards per catch in his career.
“He’s always had the talent to be sitting here right where I’m sitting,” said Harry, who has been friends with Butler since they were teenagers. “I feel like he’s going to be an extreme threat on the next level. The school he went to does not define the player he is.”
The biggest hurdle for small school players is proving they can handle the jump in competition. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah has a litmus test when deciding whether to anoint players like Butler true prospects.
“If you’re playing at that level, you have to be a dominant player,” Jeremiah said. “My wife doesn’t really care for football, but I’ll bring her in my office. I’ll go, ‘Babe.’ She’ll go, ‘What?’ I say, ‘Come here, and just watch two plays. Tell me who the NFL player is on offense.’ Two plays in, ‘He looks different than everyone else.’ ‘Yep, you got it.’”
Butler had those standout moments in the Big Sky conference, and also had big games against the in-state schools that passed on him. Butler caught seven passes for 118 yards against Arizona State in 2016, and hauled in five catches for 119 yards and a score against Arizona in 2015.
“It felt good to torch those guys a little bit,” Butler said. “In the end, we didn’t win. That’s really what I wanted to do. That really would have sent a message if we won those games.”
Butler, who is projected to be a late-round pick if he is selected, has garnered interest in Indianapolis. He said there have been conversations with multiple teams, including the Cardinals. Between the location – Butler grew up in south Phoenix -- and coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, Butler would be thrilled to stay home.
“Every receiver loves to get the ball, so it would definitely be a fun team to play for,” Butler said. “Also, Christian Kirk is over there and he’s a Valley guy. It would be fun to play with him, as well. It would definitely be a great experience.”
Butler is a self-professed underdog, and paving out an NFL career is no sure thing. However, once he got to college, Butler made the most of his chance. Now he’s ready for his opportunity on the top level.
“At the end of the day, when we strap on the pads and when we put on the cleats, everyone has to go out there and do the same thing,” Butler said. “Maybe they do have more cleats than me, but everyone is going to have to go out there and ball.”
Images of prospects going through drills at the NFL Scouting combine in Indianapolis