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THE PENN STATE SENIOR WIDE RECEIVERS have gathered for a photo shoot. There's Deon Butler, over on the left. He's the jokester, the one who in high school so badly wanted his ears pierced that he used a safety pin to do it himself. That's Jordan Norwood in the middle. He's the quiet one, the football coach's son who has had a steady girlfriend for three years and will start his second undergraduate degree, in Integrative Arts, this fall. Over on the right, that's Derrick Williams. He's the character, the energetic one who stole the show when he sang I Believe I Can Fly at his sixth-grade graduation. The others are laughing, making fun of Williams because he accidentally grabbed what must have been the shortest pair of shorts from the locker room to wear for the shoot.
They lived together as freshmen in 2005 and were thrown into starting roles during Penn State's 11-1 run that year. "We were all young at the same time," says Butler. "We all knew nothing. We all started sharing ideas with each other, and that really kept us close as a bunch that year. That definitely helped our progress as a receiving corps, because we all looked to each other for help." So the three learned as they went, getting a taste of what it feels like to contend for the national championship while figuring out how to complement each other on and off the field. "The chemistry is high," says Williams. "All of us have our own unique talents. All of us push each other. If one makes a play, the other ones want to make a play right away."
To look at them now, three players who have already made their marks in the Penn State record book before their senior years, it's hard to imagine that only one, Williams, arrived on campus with a scholarship. "It turned out we were lucky," says wide receivers coach Mike McQueary. "It turned out they were very good and, most importantly, they were very mature." Each of them has caught more than 40 passes in each of the last two seasons, an unprecedented feat for a trio of receivers in Penn State history. Each of them arrived in Happy Valley in a different way. And each of them merits a closer look.
DEON BUTLER SET PENN STATE FRESHMAN records for receptions (37) and receiving yards (691), already holds the school record for most receiving yards in a game (216) and needs just 35 catches to surpass Bobby Engram on the career list. Not bad for a kid who wasn't even recruited to play on offense for Penn State. At Hylton High School in Woodbridge, Va., Butler played both ways but began his redshirt year in State College as a walk-on at defensive back. Since switching to wide receiver during the spring of his redshirt year, he has started all but six games and has become the team's deep threat, averaging 15 yards per catch. "One on one, very few guys can cover him," says quarterbacks coach Jay Paterno. "When you're on the field, it doesn't look like he's running [that fast], but then you get the film and you go, 'What is that blur going across the screen?' It's Deon."
Butler only found out that he had earned a scholarship to play at Penn State after he had packed all his things and headed home during the summer of 2005 after his redshirt year, not at all certain that he would return to Happy Valley. "It's a very expensive school, especially with out-of-state tuition," says Butler. "I really needed to know." He was already home when McQueary called the house. The coach wondered why Butler had gone home when Penn State wanted him to stay for the summer. "My mom picked up the phone and said, 'Well, if you want him to stay for the summer, you better pay for his summer school,' meaning, a scholarship," recalls Butler. "And Coach McQueary said, 'Oh, we already got it done. He's on scholarship.' "
In high school Butler didn't have to block much when he played wide receiver, but it's something he's been asked to do at Penn State. Because he is 5' 10" and 168 pounds, he watches other receivers who are close to his height, such as the Washington Redskins' Santana Moss, for tips on blocking. "With me being a smaller guy, corners like to come up and just knock you around and get real physical," says Butler. "When they come up like that, you just cut 'em and catch 'em off guard. You've just got to learn to use your techniques wisely."
When he's not working on his technique, Butler—a crime, law and justice major—is usually watching (and making Norwood, his roommate for road games, watch) The First 48, an A&E reality show that follows homicide detectives through the first 48 hours of a case. He also interned with the Philadelphia crime scene unit over the summer.
On campus, Butler is Mr. Personality and can't resist an opportunity to rib a teammate. "Deon's always messing with me," says bespectacled senior quarterback Darryl Clark, whose locker is right near Butler's. "He's always trying to get up under my skin. He might talk about my haircut or call me four-eyes or something silly like that."
If the jovial and talkative Butler has to play defensive back to make it in the NFL, he's certainly willing to make the switch. "On offense you have to be more composed," says Butler. "On defense you can make a tackle for a two-yard gain and you can just go crazy. The crowd is with you. I definitely miss that. If I had to, I'd be happy to go back and learn."
FOR NOW BUTLER has the long ball covered, but for going over the middle there's no better yet unlikelier candidate than the slim, baby-faced Norwood. "I think going over the middle and having to run routes through linebackers and against safeties is something you need to get used to," says Norwood. "For me, that's something I've been doing since I was a freshman. At this point I enjoy going across the middle, catching the ball, taking the hits." He pauses for a moment to consider. "I think I enjoy it. Maybe I'm just used to it."