A motivated Matthew Butler opening eyes across college football
It’s been quite the journey for Matthew Butler at Tennessee. The ‘super senior’ has appeared in 42 games with 16 starts since stepping foot on campus prior to the 2017 season. He’s made it through three different head coaches, three defensive coordinators and five position coaches in what is now his fifth season on The Hill.
Matthew Butler has been the model of consistency inside the Tennessee football program, and now, the stats are in his favor. And not just on a local level, but a national level at that.
“Obviously, it’s nice to be acknowledged,” the defensive tackle told reporters Tuesday. “But when it comes down to it, the stuff that was published said there was another person in front of me and most importantly, we are coming off a loss to a team that plus or minus a few things, we win.
“We want to win – that’s the main thing. It’s really the only thing to be honest.”
Through the first two weeks of the season, Pro Football Focus has Butler pegged as the second-highest rated interior defensive lineman in college football. The Raleigh, N.C. has compiled grades of 90.0 and 90.9 from the publication in outings against Bowling Green and Pittsburgh – pitting the big man in the ‘elite’ category of the grading scale.
Butler has specifically been sharp against the run, grading 90 or above in both contests. As a result, Tennessee has defended the run well so far into 2021. Albeit, Bowling Green is no Alabama, but the Vols held the Falcons to just 32 yards on the ground in the opener. UT had another strong showing Saturday against Pitt, keeping the Panthers under 100 yards in the ground attack with 96.
“Whether it’s me getting on the ball, staying vertical, staying square, using my hands, flipping my hips or making moves – that’s just half of it,” the senior said when asked where his game has improved. “I’m just trying to take steps in the right direction every day. Once you do something pretty good once, you’ve got to do it again and bring someone along with you.”
Consistency will be the key for Butler and Tennessee’s front line as the year goes on. Butler has led all UT defensive linemen in tackles the past two seasons – years of which encompassed turnover with leadership inside the room that’s gone from Tracy Rocker-to-Jimmy Brumbaugh-to-Jeremy Pruitt-to-Rodney Garner.
But with the new sheriff in town, the two-decade experience in the Southeastern Conference is already showing improved results.
“He’s the man. When you have a coach that’s not only coaching you the right stuff but talking about the details and not letting you be average or mediocre – that’s going to bring out the best in you,” Butler said of Garner. “That’s exactly what he’s been doing and that’s exactly why he’s been doing this a long time on an elite level.”
Through two games, Butler has totaled eight tackles and two TFLs. What comes next is generating turnovers and that starts up front with the senior and his fellow defensive linemen.
“A pass rush is very important to any team – just to knock a quarterback off his timing and allow us to be in coverage a little shorter, it’s very important,” safety Trevon Flowers said Tuesday. “We are all one. If they do good, we do good. If we do good, they do good. We are all tied in.”
Tennessee will need all hands on deck. Following Saturday’s tune up with Tennessee Tech, The Vols embark on five-straight SEC games without a BYE week, three of which away from Neyland Stadium. For the defensive line to continue to improve and help spark some turnovers in key moments, Butler remains key.
“The leadership he brings to our football program is really important,” Josh Heupel said in his Monday press conference. “His consistency and his work habits and caring for his brothers around him is really important. As a football player, he’s continued to progress and get better and better.
“Schematically, things are a little bit different than what he had been playing. The ability to jump the football and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage, play on the edge, push the pocket in the pass game, disrupt things in the run game, continues to get better. I anticipate that from him as we go through the year, too.”
And who knows. If Butler continues at this pace, Tennessee could be much better on defense than any of us envisioned. He could play himself into making some money after this year. But it’s always going to be one day at a time, one play at a time for Butler.
“I think we’ve always had heart. The guys here love football,” Butler concluded. “I think the guys who end up on the field go out here and earn that time. Those who have the opportunity are going to go out there and compete, and compete their behinds off.
“The biggest thing is execution, execution, execution. Then, maybe there will be times where something happens and you just got to improve off that – then make it happen week-in and week-out.”