JONESBORO — Phillip Butterfield has been the quarterback in waiting at Arkansas State for four years.
Stuck behind two-time Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year Ryan Aplin, and sidelined twice by season-ending knee injuries, Butterfield has been relegated to a career that — for the majority of it — has been built on little more than observation.
Now a fifth-year senior, Butterfield finds himself as the heir apparent to the starting quarterback role, but he’s got to earn the job by winning it through competition on the field.
Butterfield appeared to be the team’s No. 1 quarterback coming out of spring practice, although the school did not release a depth chart. But, as Butterfield has learned over a career that has included four different head coaches, several quarterback competitions and two major injuries, he can’t take anything for granted.
“With it still undecided, you can’t act like you’ve already earned it,” Butterfield said. “You’ve got to act like you’re behind someone, like you’re the underdog, and you’ve got to work that much harder. I’m taking that approach in that this is still a competition and nobody has been named the quarterback yet.”
Butterfield has encountered one roadblock after another since arriving at Arkansas State in 2009.
Barely into his first week as a true freshman, Butterfield suffered a freak setback and missed the entire season when he tore a ligament in his right knee during warm-up drills. The following year, he lost a quarterback competition with Aplin but was still used regularly in ASU’s offense and finished the season fourth on the team in total offense while playing in 11 games.
Butterfield was dealt another setback in 2011 when he suffered another season-ending injury to the opposite knee that also required surgery during fall camp. As a redshirt junior last fall, Butterfield fell to third on the depth chart behind Aplin and Fredi Knighten and played in just one game.
Now, during preseason camp of his senior season, he’s in a quarterback competition with five other capable hands.
It’s been an interesting ride for the former Lake Hamilton standout and he’s ready to make it more interesting. Butterfield isn’t holding back.
“This could be my last year, so I’m taking that in stride knowing that you don’t have this opportunity when you’re 40 years old,” Butterfield said. “I know a lot of guys look back and kind of regret some things. I don’t want to look back and regret anything. I want to take advantage of this opportunity and I don’t want to make any decision that could hinder me.”
Being the veteran among the quarterback candidates appears to have given Butterfield at least a slight advantage with the new coaching staff and new boss Bryan Harsin.
During spring practice, Butterfield quickly stepped into the role vacated by Aplin and showed he was capable of running the team. He impressed his new coach with his knowledge of the new offense and leadership ability.
Butterfield ran only the first-team offense during the spring game, an indication that he stood atop the depth chart. He believes he made a strong impression.
“I felt really well in the spring,” Butterfield said. “I felt healthy, I felt like I knew the offense and was able to run it really well. I felt like I was seeing the defense. As long as you can execute based off those things, I think that’s what it’s going to take to be the quarterback here this year.”
Harsin has been tight-lipped about which way or to whom he leans regarding ASU’s quarterback situation.
But when asked about Butterfield, the former Boise State and University of Texas offensive coordinator admits he likes what he’s seen over the past eight months.
“Phillip Butterfield is a guy that possesses a tremendous amount of qualities for that position,” Harsin said. “I thought he did a great job in spring, I really did. He’s a guy that’s been here, knows the team. A new system, he’s been through all sorts of different systems and names and things like that, and he’s handled it. … He’s been through this before.”
Having sat out all of 2011 with the knee injury and then playing in just one game last year, Butterfield hasn’t gotten much game experience in two years.
His only appearance last season came against Alcorn State. He played three snaps to start the second half, handed the ball off twice to Rocky Hayes and his only pass attempt — a short toss to the tight end — fell incomplete.
But longevity and experience is what Butterfield believes he has to offer. He’s been around the program longer than anyone on campus and he believes he understands what the job requires.
“I feel like my comfort level with the team is really good,” Butterfield said. “I’ve been here for five years, so I know everybody’s strengths and weaknesses. My experience — I’ve been on this field for a while now. I’m excited about this opportunity.”
Although Butterfield lost out in competitions against Aplin in previous years, he believes those battles have made him a better quarterback today.
Aplin guided Arkansas State to back-to-back Sun Belt Conference titles and GoDaddy.com Bowl appearances. Butterfield said playing behind Aplin, watching and learning from him, could be to his advantage this season.
“I think I’ve had a great experience sitting behind Ryan for the past few years,” Butterfield said. “On and off the field, he could really show you what it takes to be a great guy and a great player. … The competition with Ryan I felt like made me a better quarterback. Hopefully, it made him a better quarterback, too.”
Arkansas State quarterbacks coach Bush Hamdan has been impressed with what he’s seen from Butterfield so far. But he would like to see him be a little more consistent than he’s shown in some practices.
“Obviously, Phillip Butterfield, he’s got to play within himself,” Hamdan said. “I think he makes really good decisions, knows the game of football, knows what we’re trying to do. For him to take the next step, it’s just continuing to make good decisions.”
Butterfield spent the summer working out with the teammates he’s now competing with for the starting job. He focused most of his energy on learning the playbook and understanding every detail of Harsin’s offense.
About his knees, Butterfield said there are no lingering effects and he’s as healthy as ever since coming to ASU. It’s just a matter of going out and winning the starting job now.
“I feel 110 percent honestly,” Butterfield said. “I’m really excited about this opportunity.”