GARNER, N.C. — Tennessee freshman defensive lineman Matthew Butler is a serious-minded young man.
Almost too serious, though his focus and intensity have impressed one of the most respected figures in the Vols’ football program, strength coach Rock Gullickson.
“Matthew is really dialed in and he asks a lot of questions, high level questions,” said Gullickson, who has had three weeks to work with Butler since he arrived on campus with the 2018 signing class.
“He has been thrown in with the upperclassmen and he realizes where he’s at in the real world, but he’s very determined and so serious,” Gullickson said. “This means the world to him, and he’s trying to do everything right — almost too right — you kind of want him to relax a little bit.
Butler explained to SEC Country at an interview at his high school in Garner, N.C., in May that it’s not possible for him to let up now that he has discovered his purpose in life.
“Once you find your ‘why’ in life, there’s no reason why you would ever stop doing what it is you do,” Butler said. “That’s why, even though this can be a headache going from the weight room, back home to study, and then get up early the next day and do the same thing over again, every single day, it’s nothing if you know why you’re doing it.”
The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Butler is doing it because he wants to be the best. At everything.
Talk is cheap, but Butler’s 4.3 GPA in high school and five AP classes at Garner High School say much about his discipline.
So does the 24 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press and 325-pound power clean he could put up even before entering Gullickson’s celebrated weight program.
“If he misses a rep, he comes back and gets it, or if he misses a run time, he comes back and does an extra one,” said Gullickson, who prior to his January arrival at Tennessee was a 17-year veteran of the NFL strength coach ranks. “He’s physically gifted, and he’s going to be one of our very best in the weight room over time.”
Butler trained six days a week leading up to his arrival at Tennessee, but he also ran track and threw the shot put.
“The 100? I ran it in 12.04, and that sure doesn’t break any records, but for someone of almost 270 pounds it’s OK,” Butler said, having a chuckle at his own expense. “The fastest 40 (-yard dash) I’ve ran is 4.75 seconds on the track, and I ran a 4.78 on grass.
“But when I get on campus, it’s going to be about my hand extension, keeping my thumbs up, hand placement, getting off the block violently and my ability to rush the passer.”
Butler had 26 sacks his senior season playing in North Carolina’s largest high school classification level.
Butler doesn’t mind sharing his lofty aspirations. In fact, he said he hopes fans doubt him, challenge him and chide him if he falls short of his goals.
That will provide added motivation, Butler said.
Tennessee DL signee Matthew Butler reveals his “outrageous” goals with Mike Griffith
Posted by Tennessee Volunteers Insiders on Friday, May 5, 2017
“I want to earn my academic patch by the end of summer, the Vol Scholar patch, I plan to get A’s in all my classes,” Butler said. “I want to be a freshman All-American, I want to make the All-SEC team my freshmen year, and I want to get some sacks. I think 8 is realistic, 10 is what I’m going for.”
Butler said Philadelphia Eagles first-round draft pick and Tennessee all-time sack leader Derek Barnett was among his favorite players even before he became interested in playing for the Vols.
“I tell Derek every day ‘you set the standard in the D-line room and I’m living up to that standard,’” Butler said. “He knows I’m different than the next guy, and that’s what I’m trying to prove.”
Butler said he wants to win a starting job at Tennessee, which is a bit far-fetched considering the Vols have Darrell Taylor and Jonathon Kongbo projected at defensive end, and Kahlil McKenzie and Kendal Vickers at defensive tackle.
Winning time in the playing rotation, however, is likely provided Butler can continue to persevere.
“He has a competitive mindset,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. “He has a desire to play this year.”
Butler comes from a military family where discipline and high goals were a way of life.
“We’ve been working on it all along, since he’s been born. I thought he was brought to the world to achieve high success,” said Philip Butler, Matthew’s father. “I didn’t want anything to hinder the success he was called to achieve, so I’ve pushed him, made sure he was going to the best schools.”
Butler went to Berean Baptist in Fayetteville, a private school he said that got him on the right track before transferring to Garner.
“At times there were sacrifices,” Philip Butler said, explaining the financial commitment that was needed. “I can’t say we ever drove the newest of vehicles, or wore the most expensive clothes. But sacrifices had to be made.”
SERIOUS ABOUT TENNESSEE
Butler had offers from nine ACC schools and six SEC schools, but Tennessee stood out to him.
In a word, Butler said, it was the Vols’ “passion,” from head coach Butch Jones on down.
“I would text [Jones] after every game,” Butler said. “I texted him after the Florida game and I said, ‘Coach, I love your passion.’”
Butler’s public commit date was Dec. 21, 2016, after he took official visits to Texas A&M, South Carolina, Penn State, Duke and Alabama.
“I’d silently committed on Aug. 1 last year,” Butler said. “I told [Jones] I give you my word I’m coming to Tennessee, and I could give you 100 reasons why I want to come. I gave him 10 [reasons] on the phone.”
Butler said Jones would call him after each of his official visits and ask him how they went and what he thought about the coaches and schools.
Butler said he took official visits because he’s a football fan, and he enjoyed seeing the different stadiums and being in the different football environments — even when he was watching Tennessee games on his phone while on visits.
Staying in touch with some of the Vols’ players convinced him he had made the right decision throughout his recruitment.
“The guys were passionate,” Butler said. “I talked to Kahlil (McKenzie) and Corey Vereen, and they were passionate about what was going on.”
Butler had camped at Tennessee prior to his senior season, and he’d had an opportunity to watch the players work out with former UT great Chuck Smith, a nine-year NFL veteran now renowned for his pass rush coaching skills.
Ultimately, however, it came back to Jones where Butler’s commitment to Tennessee was concerned.
“No matter how many people were there on a recruiting visit, Coach Jones always found several times to talk to me and made my priorities a priority for him,” Butler said. “Like on Orange Carpet Day, there were so many people there, but he made it a point to send me to the academic counselor and meet a professor and I got to talk to him extensively.”
And then it was back to talking about football goals for Butler, whose mind is seemingly always active and on to the next thought.
“I want to beat Alabama, I want to go undefeated in the SEC, I want to make it to the SEC championship,” Butler said. “To do that we have to listen to our coaches, we have to stay in the weight room, we have to stay disciplined, we have to take care of our grades so it’s not in the back of our heads, we’ve got to eat right, all kinds of stuff.
“But hey, why can’t we do it?”