ORONO — Derek Buttles grew up around football.
He watched his older brothers, Ryan (who played at Division I Buffalo) and Steven, play and was inspired by their success.
Buttles followed their example, which helped lead him to the University of Maine. On Saturday, he returns to his home state as the Black Bears seek some payback in a 6 p.m. game against the University at Albany.
Buttles, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound receiver, has been an effective and versatile performer. The All-Colonial Athletic Association second-team pick leads UMaine this season with 10 receptions for 193 yards and a touchdown. His 96.5 yards per game rank him No. 22 in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Buttles, who came in as a tight end, plays there some, but also lines up in the slot.
“He’s more of an inside receiver and he’s very good at it,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove. “We’ve built a lot of things in our offense around his ability to maneuver and work routes in and around linebackers. He’s got excellent hands, (and) runs very disciplined routes.”
In 36 career games, he has grabbed 62 passes for 796 yards and four scores.
Football — along with basketball and track and field — also served as diversions for Buttles during some difficult days in high school.
In 2004, Buttles’ mother Darla died of lung cancer at the age of 45. He was 15 at the time.
“That was a pretty humbling experience for me and my family,” Buttles said. “It really brought our family together.”
Buttles said the tragedy helped him gain an appreciation for focusing on the short term and maximizing his potential.
“Going through that made me a lot stronger person and made me realize everything we take for granted in life, that this opportunity to play Division I football for free was something I needed to take advantage of.”
Buttles has capitalized on his talent and work ethic to make a considerable leap from high school to the Football Championship Subdivision level.
He hails from Pike, N.Y., a small town in the western part of the state. There were only 300 students at Letchworth Central High School, where Buttles’ graduating class numbered 80.
He grew up in a rural area where he was able to enjoy outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing. So when it came time to take recruiting visits, he liked UMaine.
He had another scholarship offer from Northeastern University in Boston and visited the University of New Hampshire, but UMaine felt right.
“I fit in real well with the kind of guys that were here,” Buttles said. “This is where I felt most comfortable. It kind of reminds me of home. I had a good feeling.”
UMaine coaches had a similarly good feeling about Buttles’ potential.
He arrived in 2007 at 6-5, 205 pounds. The staff hoped to bulk him up to make him into a tight end.
“We found out that his body can only handle so much weight, just the way he’s built,” Cosgrove said.
Buttles redshirted his first year, during which he tutored under NFL-bound tight end Matt Mulligan of West Enfield and hit the weights hard.
Instead of becoming a bruising blocker and pass-catcher, Buttles has utilized his height and agility to catch the football in space.
“He gives you size in there,” Cosgrove said. “Quarterbacks have a tremendous amount of confidence in him for his abilities.”
Buttles has alternated between slot receiver and tight end with senior tight end Jeff Falvey sidelined after knee surgery.
“We also use (tight end) Justin (Perillo) as a fullback and Derek as an H-back/inside receiver,” Cosgrove said. “They allow us to have some flexibility with our formations.”
Buttles has demonstrated a knack for making big catches.
As a sophomore in 2008, he caught a desperation pass in the end zone on a fourth-and-21 play with 2:49 left to give the Bears a victory at Monmouth.
Last season, Buttles made a leaping grab in the end zone on a fourth-and-nine pass with 1:12 remaining to send the game against New Hampshire into overtime en route to a victory over the Wildcats.
Last Saturday at Pittsburgh, Buttles went up high in the end zone to snare a TD pass from quarterback Warren Smith, despite having his helmet ripped off in the process.
“It was one-on-one, me and the safety,” Buttles said. “I had a pretty big size advantage against that safety. Warren put it where it needed to be for me to go up and get it.”
Buttles credits his older brothers — both of whom are law enforcement officers in New York — with inspiring and helping mold him into a Division I player.
“I wanted to follow in their footsteps,” said Buttles, who also has an older sister, Amber. “They really pushed me to make me as good as I can be.”
Buttles hopes he might be able to continue playing football at the pro level. If not, he’ll put a degree in construction management technology to good work.
His father, Steven, is a project manager for a Texas company that does construction projects.
Until then, Buttles is excited about UMaine’s prospects for the 2011 season, especially after the Pitt game.
“You can definitely see the difference, how much more efficient we are as an offense,” Buttles said.
“I think the (key is) the togetherness of the guys on the team, how close we are and the offseason we had.”