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Matthew Butler has been dreaming of (an Orange and) White Christmas for awhile.
In a ceremony at Garner (N.C.) High on Wednesday, the newly-minted 4-star defensive lineman committed to Tennessee over finalists Penn State, N.C. State, Texas A&M and Duke, unwrapping a big present and revealing a Vols cap.
“It’s a relief and a joy just to know where I’m going and what I’m doing and how I’m going to fit in there,” Butler told me.
“To know that I’ve been accepted there as part of the football family. I’m just very excited.”
— Jeff Jones (@JeffJonesSports) December 21, 2016
He becomes Tennessee’s 26th pledge — and sixth defensive lineman — in the Class of 2017. He touts a high-ceiling and addresses a glaring need along the defensive line.
When he did know he wanted to be a Vol? Well, Butler said Tennessee has trended ever since he visited for the first time this summer.
“They were always kind of my leader, but I never really wanted to say it even though it was inferred sometimes,” he explained.
“They were always my leader, so I would look for a reason not to go to Tennessee. I feel like that made sense. But I never found a reason. I feel like it’s the best place for me in every aspect.
“Collectively, as a family, leaving Tennessee’s campus the first two times we had been there, it was different. You can really pinpoint the difference. But leaving the campus, everybody was always happy. It was always a good vibe. It was different than most other campuses. I kind of new the first time I stepped onto campus, ‘This could be it.’”
After a recent ratings bump, Butler is a now the nation’s No. 16 defensive end, and the cerebral pass rusher has the skills to play the 3-technique, too. He’s quick off the edge with a long wingspan (6-11), a powerful punch and raw strength. He can overpower or outsmart opponents. His relentless motor is key attribute, too.
“Right now, they see me as an end,” Butler said of his position at Tennessee.
“But my skill-set, my knee bend, my hands. Naturally, my hips have been getting better and they can see that on film, so they see that and that alone and my ability to snuff out plays, my presence. But I might grow into an inside player.”
Butler recorded some eye-popping stats as a senior, registering 26 sacks and 44 tackles for loss. Since a candid chat with his position coach this summer, he’s become a real “student of the game,” studying film and constantly asking questions. His close relationship with Vols assistant Steve Stripling and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was borne out by a mutual obsession for the game.
“I always enjoy talking about the game of football,” he said.
“My knowledge of the game, and how I play the game, really suits how they coach in the scheme.”
Butler appreciates Stripling’s frankness and coaching style. They’ve developed a real chemistry — even after the veteran assistant kind of tricked him into coming to a defensive lineman camp over the summer.
“I kind of had a feeling going down to the camp that I would compete because I wanted to see how coach Strip coached,” Butler said.
“And once I saw how he coached, it was kind of icing on the cake.”
Five more things about Matthew Butler’s commitment
- His birthday shoutout to Reggie White on Tuesday was not some sort of veiled message about his ultimate commitment to Tennessee. “That tweet about Reggie White — I kid you not — was not a hint at all. I just know Reggie White is the best defensive lineman to ever play football. Whether he played for Tennessee or Tennessee Tech. He’s the best ever. (Wednesday) is Chuck Smith’s birthday. He’s another great. Wish him a happy birthday, too.”
- His biggest concern was with Tennessee’s rash of injuries in 2016. “I was always leery about the strength and conditioning situation. I mean everybody was. But I talked to coach (Butch) Jones, he told me about. Frankly I asked him one day, ‘How are we going to avoid a situation again?’ He told me about some changes to the strength and conditioning program. He introduced me to the nutritionist and talked about a better practice schedule.”
- He still appreciates that Tennessee didn’t just “recruit” him, but actually taught him things. “I was learning about football. I was learning about Tennessee and I couldn’t say no. I wasn’t the stuff I wanted to hear. It was the stuff I needed to hear.”
- He will take his official visit to Tennessee on Jan. 20 — a popular weekend for many Vol commits.
- He’s cousins with former Tennessee basketball player Anthony Richardson (1984-88).