Mark Hiben and Reece Butler were vital components in their high school teams’ offenses last season at Glenbard West and Wheaton North, respectively.
Today, Hiben and Butler are learning what college football is all about as freshmen at Wheaton College.
Hiben, who compiled more than 1,100 receiving yards and caught 14 touchdown passes for the Hilltoppers in 2010, has seen some action for the Thunder early this season. Meanwhile, Butler, who led the Falcons to consecutive postseason appearances (2009 and 2010), is the No. 3 quarterback on Wheaton College’s depth chart.
The two former prep standouts will tell you that the amount of on- and off-field preparation and study they and their teammates put in to getting ready for their Saturday contests is like taking the football equivalent of a mid-term exam each week.
There are team meetings to attend, plays to learn, plenty of films to watch, and always an emphasis on refining one’s skills and getting better. The college game, Hiben points out, is “very mental” compared to high school.
'The little stuff matters'
“The little stuff really matters at this level,” said Hiben, who set a single-game IHSA record with 12 catches for 319 yards and four touchdowns in a second-round playoff with the Hilltoppers last November. “Routes, blocking, all the little stuff that you might neglect in high school. Being in a correct position to catch the ball, catching with your hands. In college, the defensive backs are really good.”
In order to not give an advantage to opposing DBs, Hiben explains that his coaches at Wheaton stress looking a defensive back in the eye and knowing exactly how many steps it takes to complete each route.
“And they hammer home tucking the ball (in) because we don’t want any fumbles and (give) the other team any chance to score unless they earn it,” he said.
For Butler, the emphasis at quarterback also is more about learning the fine points of the position, such as footwork and reading defenses. Each practice session is videotaped, too, so players can review their progress.
“You learn a lot more about what to look for in a defense, what you’re seeing in front of you,” he said. “Why we’re doing certain things. Out(side) of practice, we’re watching film on opposing teams and also on yourself so you can get better.”
In addition, the Thunder runs a no-huddle offense, requiring Hiben and Butler to become well-versed in the team’s system of signals it sends from the sidelines to call each play. One of Butler’s main game-time responsibilities is helping with sideline signals.
“I’ll get a couple of reps during the week,” Butler said, “but I’m paying attention to plays and calls. It’s different because it’s a little bit faster pace. Right when the play is done, we’re looking to the sidelines for a signal for the next play. We’re trying to catch the defense off-guard.
“The first couple of weeks it was challenging, but the older guys really help you out and it’s gotten a little easier just because we’ve been doing it for a month now. The more you work on it, the more comfortable you feel with it.”
One intangible that’s carried over from high school to college for both Hiben and Butler is being part of a winning atmosphere. The Thunder went 10-2 last season and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division III postseason. Wheaton College entered the 2011 campaign as the nation’s eighth-ranked team in a poll released by D3football.com.
The Thunder, 3-0 so far this season, hasn’t lost more than three games in any year since 2001. The last time Wheaton College endured a losing season was in 1997 when it went 4-5.
Neither Hiben nor Butler went into their first year of college football expecting to see much playing time due to the learning curve and the perennial success of the football program.
“It’s rare that we have a couple of guys getting playing time as freshmen,” Butler said. “Freshmen are not necessarily ready to play because the game is so much faster and a lot more advanced than high school.
“I really wasn’t anticipating playing, but I’m still working hard in case something happens.”
Something did happen in 2009. Butler was the backup quarterback to Taylor Graham at Wheaton North that year, but a late-season injury to Graham (now at Ohio State) opened the door for Butler to take over. Butler led the Falcons on a memorable to the Class 7A quarterfinals.
“I’m just really trying to get better each practice,” said Butler, whose roommate at Wheaton is Wheaton Academy product Luke Thorson, a wide receiver. “Learn the offense and understand it, and refine my throws to become more accurate. When the time comes to compete for a starting spot, I can do the best job I can.”
Hiben is part of the Thunder’s receiver rotation and had a memorable debut in Wheaton College’s 54-34 victory over Albion College to open the season. He caught four passes for 55 yards, including a 16-yard TD from starting QB Garrett Meador in the third quarter that put the Thunder in front, 33-21.
Since then, however, Hiben hasn’t seen any action in either of the Thunder’s most recent games—Saturday’s 49-15 triumph over Olivet and a 23-14 win against Wisconsin-Platteville Sept. 17.
“They keep hammering home that most guys won’t play as freshmen,” he said. “Wheaton is a really competitive school. In training camp I started making a couple of plays and got thrown in with the starters.
“It’s been fun, but no, I didn’t expect to play as a freshman. Obviously they have faith in me to make plays, but they keep hammering home that I need to get a lot better. It’s a lot different than playing high school football.”
Following Their Old Teams
Wheaton College’s McNully Stadium is less than 3 miles from both the Glenbard West and Wheaton North campuses, which enables Hiben and Butler to keep in touch with old coaches and teammates, and keep abreast of how their alma maters are faring this season.
The Hilltoppers, with a 5-0 record, are the state’s No. 1-ranked Class 7A team in the recent Associated Press poll.
“I went to the Wheaton South and Glenbard West game,” said Hiben, referring to the season’s opening game between the Hilltoppers and Tigers, nationally televised on ESPN and won by Glenbard West. “I’m trying to keep up with them as much as possible. It’s nice being local so I can do that.”
Hiben believes the Hilltoppers have a chance to win the Class 7A state title, “if they keep working hard and getting better in practice.
“I believe in them, and they have a great shot,” he said.
Wheaton North, 4-1, is climbing up the 7A ranks, as well.
“I’m good friends with a lot of those seniors, and Johnny Peltz, I talk to him a lot,” Butler said.
Peltz is the Falcons’ junior quarterback who replaced Butler as the starter this season.
“It’s been fun to kind of see it as an outsider,” Butler said. “It’s been fun to watch those guys playing hard and doing a good job.”