Redshirt senior quarterback Bret Bushka threw for two touchdowns against Montana on Sept. 2. Photo by Claire Runkel.
SAWYER GOLDWEIN | SPORTS REPORTER | firstname.lastname@example.org
Butler football is ready to make major waves this season after a much improved 2022 campaign. The Bulldogs went 7-4 last season, including five conference wins, on their way to their first winning season since 2017.
Now, with a plethora of talented players returning on both sides of the ball, head coach Mike Uremovich’s squad has big aspirations in mind, looking to build on last season’s momentum, working towards a conference championship. The most important returning player, and a large part of the reason for optimism, is redshirt-senior quarterback Bret Bushka. Despite being named Pioneer Football League (PFL) Offensive Player of the Year in 2022, Bushka knows he and his teammates won’t rest on their laurels.
“Seven wins was cool and all, but we’re not satisfied with that,” Bushka said. “We want to win the championship. We want to be playing for the [Football Championship Subdivision (FCS)] playoffs.”
The Dawgs are not the favorites to win the PFL and advance to the FCS playoffs. They were picked to finish fifth in the preseason coaches poll, but Uremovich does not care what outsiders say about his team or their competition.
“I don’t read any of that crap,” Uremovich said. “I just know that I’m trying to get our team as good as we can be every day and that’s through practice, that’s through meetings, that’s through lifting, that’s through recruiting. We’re just trying to get our program better every day.”
On the offensive side of the ball, Bushka is not the only key piece back for another year. The majority of Butler’s offensive line, which allowed an FCS-best seven sacks last season, returns for another go-round. Their strong play in the trenches helped the Bulldogs finish at the top of the FCS in red zone offense, scoring on all but one possession inside the oppositions’ 20-yard line.
Butler’s red zone success can also be attributed to the dual threat skill set of Bushka, who added five rushing touchdowns to his tally of 20 passing scores last season. Bushka also led the team in rushing yards.
The third-year starter will have to dole out passes to a few more receivers, though. 2022 All-PFL Honorable Mention wide receiver Tyler Adams, who transferred to Butler for his graduate year of eligibility, is now pursuing a pro career. This leaves the door open for one or more of the Dawgs’ current pass-catchers to carve out a larger role. Bushka is looking forward to seeing the work he has put in with those teammates show itself on the field.
“It’s really been fun,” Bushka said. “We’ve got some transfers coming in. We’ve got other guys that now this is their second year in the offense. So it’s exciting. I’m really pumped up for those guys this year.”
Meanwhile, on the defensive side of the ball, things have been clicking so far in practice. Sophomore defensive back Will Mason played his first season of college football under a first-year head coach in Uremovich and new defensive coordinator in Jeff Knowles. Mason can feel the effect of the year of experience both for him and his coaches.
“We’re really feeling more comfortable with each other, [and] the way we want to attack and play football, and it just feels like we’re on a different level of chemistry especially that we’ve got the spring under our belt; we’re understanding plays a lot better,” Mason said.
Mason, who earned an Honorable Mention on the All-PFL team in his true-freshman year, will headline the Bulldogs’ secondary in 2023 alongside his older brother Trey, a redshirt-senior. Butler’s secondary has plenty of experience, which should prove helpful from a communication and chemistry standpoint, but no connection will be stronger than that of siblings, at least that’s the way Will Mason sees it.
“I like to think that we have a special chemistry in terms of just communicating with each other and getting things done,” Mason said. “It’s almost like sometimes we’ve got telepathy going on out there, but it’s unique, and I love it — wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
While the Mason brothers have chemistry that comes from a different place than most players, they’re not the only ones who are used to playing in unison.
Uremovich’s squad returns the same four starting defensive lineman it had last year, and hopefully their experience will provide a reliable anchor point up front. This includes last year’s Bulldog sack leader Jacob Cain, as well as 2022 All-PFL Honorable Mention Jack Belskis. Uremovich is pleased with the progress his starting defensive line has made over the course of their careers, both as individuals and as a unit.
“They’re getting to the point where they’re not just learning their job, they’re learning how their job relates to the rest of the defense,” Uremovich said. “And once you have an understanding of the whole concept, you can obviously execute a lot better.”
The offense and defense are prepared to work in unison, but there’s one more group they need help from, and that’s the special teams.
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, 2022 PFL Special Teams Player of the Year Luka Zurak has them covered. Also a 2023 All-PFL choice, the redshirt-junior punter/kicker is a reliable jack of all trades for Butler.
The Bulldogs opened their season on the road against 14th ranked Montana. Butler battled, but could not overcome an early 10-0 deficit, and fell to the Grizzlies by a score of 35-20.
Butler will look to get back on track on Saturday in their home opener against Taylor University.