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Every prospect’s recruitment has its own story, and Matthew Butler is juggling his future decision with a fascinatingly mature, measured and meticulous approach.
The 3-star defensive end from North Carolina remains one of Tennessee’s highest priories in the 2017 class, battling Duke, N.C. State, South Carolina, Penn State and Texas A&M for Butler’s signature.
It won’t come easy.
“I understand that whether there’s 50,000 fans or 100,000 fans, whether you wear Nike, Adidas or Under Armour, whether you have fun on a recruiting visit, that’s not going to help me play football, get my education or grow up,” Butler told me.
“I want to be on a team, for a lack of a better word, full of dogs. A team full of dogs that are level-minded. Not too high. Not too low. Everyone with the same goal. Not just a bunch of characters.”
Talk about a no nonsense approach.
Butler visited Tennessee last weekend, watching the blowout loss to Alabama. It was the defensive end’s third visit to Knoxville, but the first time he’d been able to catch a game.
“That was something I definitely wanted to experience. They’ve been recruiting me hard,” he said.
“It was cool — it does not affect my recruitment at all — but it was cool when you’re walking on campus and people recognize you. I’m not from Tennessee. Never been to a game, but folks were like, ‘Oh, that’s Matthew Butler.’ That’s cool.”
Butler, who holds more than two dozen offers, specifically visited to take in the gameday environment and continue to learn about the Volunteers. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive end is legitimately interested in studying the game and honing his craft, casually noting that Tennessee and N.C. State like to drop their defensive ends in coverage at times, while Duke utilizes a more read-and-react scheme for their ends.
“I saw what I needed to see (at Tennessee),” Butler explained.
“I’m really just studying the game for my sake and my recruitment’s sake every time I go on any visit.
“I’m looking for how they play football — not necessarily a win or a loss, but their style, aggressiveness in play, skill-at other positions. So quite frankly, the better one person plays their position, the easier it is for the next position. I wanted to see what guys they have (at defensive end) and on the other side of the ball, too.
“You see guys like Derek Barnett, who is a great player. And (Cory) Vereen, who has proven himself to be a good player as well. And you see those guys and I’d be playing that same position, so you look at how did they play? What responsibilities are they asked to do?”
The turning point?
With Vereen set to graduate, Tennessee is looking to add another athletic pass rusher, and the Volunteers have centered their sights on Butler.
It’s readily apparent why.
The North Carolina native has produced a terrific senior season, leading Garner with 20 tackles for loss and 17 sacks.
Butler has exploded since being moved to end full-time, playing mostly at defensive tackle as a junior. Butler is flexible enough to still slide inside, too, using his combination of speed (4.7 40-yard dash), power and length (6-11 wingspan) to make plays all across the defensive line. His time spent on the interior also allowed him to learn new techniques, translating those skills as a pass rusher.
Butler told me he can specifically pinpoint when the light turned on for him this fall, taking his game to another level ever since.
“Before this preseason, I felt as if I was a good player. A very hard worker. I approached the game with a mind-first attitude. You have to know the game to play the game. But like, I just kind of remember the day that everything when up to the next level. It was after a scrimmage and we had done well, and my position coach said, ‘You’re really playing well, and if you play well like that this season every college is going to want you. You can be a whole lot better player than even that. It all starts (with your mind).’
“So I asked him, ‘Do you feel as if I’m just going out there any playing, and not playing with my mind. He said, ‘No. I don’t feel that way, but I still want you to step it up. Not physically. Everybody knows you’re the most physically gifted guys here, but if you’re mentally gifted — which you are. Your GPA says that. Your test scores say that. — You need to translate that to football and you’ll be scary.’
“If that’s talk, then he was absolutely right about this season because I’m a totally different player. My stats have doubled since last season. I’m making plays I’m supposed to make. I’m making plays for others. That just kind of went over into the recruiting process because I want a coach that can push me. That’s going to coach me hard. Yell at me when I do wrong. Even yell at me when I do it right to do it better. That’s just what I want.”
Is Steve Stripling that coach?
Butler’s cerebral and levelheaded approach has allowed him to develop a strong relationship with Tennessee defensive line coach Steve Stripling. Butler appreciates the veteran coach’s frankness, saying, “He tells it to you straight. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear. I don’t want to hear what I want to hear if that makes any sense.”
Stripling semi-setup Butler to attend a Volunteers camp this summer, casually suggesting an invite and letting Butler take the bait.
“He was really nonchalant about it. Like, ‘Hey, if you want to camp so I can be next to you. You can be next to me. I have to be here,’” Butler recounted.
“I was like, ‘Yea. I’ll go for it. I’ll never back down from competition.’ I think that’s exactly what he wanted me to say.”
“So I came and went against (Tennessee commit) Riley Locklear and a few other guys whose names slip my mind, commits, recruits. He pushed me. Like he wanted me to beat these guys, but not only beat them but make them look inept. That’s when it really went to a whole new level with him.”
Butler quickly noted that while he’s close with Stripling, he has similar chemistry with other position coaches at Duke, N.C. State, USC and elsewhere, saying, “that’s what it so hard to make a decision.”
Butler has already taken official visits to Penn State and Duke. Tennessee is guaranteed an official visit, and the 3-star defensive end will likely take his final two trips to N.C. State and Texas A&M.
While he originally hoped to make a decision in October, Butler has pushed back his timetable to the end of his senior season, eying an announcement either following the playoffs or after the North Carolina-South Carolina Shrine Bowl.
Butler is confident he’ll make a well-informed decision. He has a checklist on academics, fit, scheme, team personality, etc.
He’s assessing all options and when he’s ready, he’ll make an announcement among family and friends who have helped him reach this point.
“Your education is what you make of it,” he said.
“I can play whatever I’m asked to play. A wise man once told me, ‘If you can make $10 million playing defensive tackle, boy, you better play defensive tackle. If you can make $10 million playing defensive end, boy, you better play defensive end. … I feel like I can’t make a bad decision at this point. I just want to make the best decision.”