One of the catalysts for Michigan’s offense this season has been one of the biggest surprises to emerge out of this group -- tight end Jake Butt.
What Butt’s contribution at the tight end position has meant for the Wolverines is that Devin Funchess doesn't need to play with his hand on the ground as much. So Michigan has focused on getting Funchess split out, utilizing his athleticism and getting him more involved in the passing game.
That emergence from Butt as a blocking tight end created a domino effect of sorts. It allowed Funchess to move and become a more effective offensive threat, and Funchess’ performances have made wide receiver Jeremy Gallon more effective, too. All of this together makes Michigan more multiple in its attack and more difficult to scheme against, which will be crucial as the Wolverines face the No. 1 defense in the nation this weekend in Michigan State.
Since being more of a tight end/wide receiver hybrid, Funchess' receiving statistics have skyrocketed. Through the first four games of the season he averaged just 36 yards per game. But in his three games at the new position, his numbers have tripled to 116 yards per game.
His production also has had a boomerang effect on Gallon's numbers. The first four games of the season -- with Funchess as a true tight end -- Gallon accounted for 328 yards on 22 receptions. Since Funchess has been split out more, Gallon's numbers grew to 503 yards on 23 receptions in just three games -- moving from 82 yards per game to 168 yards per game since Funchess came over.
And all of this was possible because of Butt's ability to step into Funchess' role, allowing Michigan to be more creative with its personnel.
But six months ago none of this seemed possible. The Michigan coaching staff had intended to redshirt Butt following last spring. He had shown the initiative by enrolling early, but ultimately he was too light and wasn't physical enough.
The coaches didn’t imagine he’d be able to gain enough weight to be able to compete this fall, meaning Butt would redshirt and Funchess would once again be a primary blocking tight end.
Fortunately for Michigan, the coaches were wrong.
"I thought Jake Butt was probably our nicest surprise because after spring football he came back bigger and stronger,” offensive coordinator Al Borges said in early September. “Jake has always had good football awareness, even from the first day he got here. So he has made a contribution much faster than we had anticipated after spring football.”
Unlike Borges, Butt’s high school coach, Tom Phillips, wasn’t surprised at all to see how much Butt has contributed this fall. He said he knew Butt saw the redshirt possibilities as more of a challenge rather than a drawback. And Phillips knew that when that was seen as a real possibility, Butt would rise to the occasion.
Phillips said he has coached only one other player who holds the same kind of drive as Butt, and that’s current Florida defensive coordinator and former four-year Bowling Green starter DJ Durkin.
“I’m not surprised; he was being challenged,” Phillips said. “You give him a challenge and [Jake and DJ] are going to thrive, they’re going to meet it and go beyond. … He left early because he wanted to play now.”
Not only is Butt playing now, he has become a key contributor who has allowed Michigan to open up its offense. With Butt's comfortability in a blocking role, it gave Funchess the chance to get back to the type of role he played in high school.
Coming out of Harrison (Mich.) High School, Funchess was the No. 5 tight end in the nation, but his varsity team hadn’t really used him in many blocking situations. So it was a bit of a transition for Funchess as a freshman. Even though it was the same position in name, his role was completely different.
But now, with Butt being able to step into that kind of a position more naturally, it has given Michigan a more complicated look offensively, which has been difficult to game plan against.
The Wolverines’ diverse attack dazzled in the Indiana game, in which Gallon recorded 14 catches for 369 yards and Funchess tallied four catches for 84 yards.
“Some of it was because they were so conscious of Funchess running down through the middle of the defense, because he poses that threat all the time and it gave Jeremy some opportunities,” Borges said. “There were other [times] where there were two receivers out there and both of them can hurt you, and that makes a difference.”
Funchess hasn’t completely flown the coop of his tight end duties. He still puts his hand on the ground from time to time. And as Butt comes along more in the passing game, both players will continue to make Michigan’s offense more difficult to defend.
“He’s the nicest surprise because we could use him. We didn’t plan on using him,” Borges said. “It has been a big deal because he’s given that U, that move, that H-back type guy where Funchess, now that he’s playing outside some, didn’t have to tow the whole load. It has been just gigantic for us. He has done such a nice job.”