When Matthew Butler walks into a room, you notice him immediately, even amongst a crowd of players. And it’s not just his size, although at 6’4” he would be hard to miss. He has a presence that immediately commands attention. A 5th year player who elected to take a “super senior” season, Butler has been a leader in the Tennessee locker room. Josh Carney, Owen Straley and I had the opportunity to speak with the defensive lineman today during the Shrine Bowl media session. Butler wasn’t a starter until his junior year but he has been contributing on the defensive side since he was a freshman. It’s been a gradual build up to a very successful final year for him, if not quite as much for the Volunteers, who finished the regular season at 7-6 and lost to Purdue in overtime in the Music City Bowl.
According to Butler, he has been introduced to every defense philosophy that you can have and then rattled off all the formations he has played recently, including a 3-4, a true 4-3 and a 4-2-5 front with everything in between. He discussed different looks and different alignments. It’s clear that the playbook came easily to him in his final season, which is what brought his play to the next level.
As Butler explained: “The biggest thing is I’ve always been detail oriented and cerebral in the game, but now, you know, I can kind of be detail oriented and cerebral all practice. I don’t have to figure anything out on my own…I have great coaches around me, had great coaches before, but maybe these coaches work better for me.” It seems like his understanding of the game and his role has crystallized for him this season. He explained that when the cerebral part in the game is habitual, it becomes second nature and allows him to see things more clearly and make adjustments.
When we asked which schemes he felt most comfortable in and where he sees his best fit at the next level, the defensive lineman gave the answer that any coach would love to hear: “Honestly, [I] can’t even say that right now because I’ve had some success in that 3-4 base scheme where that’s our base defense. I’ve obviously had success in the 4-3. Do the stats look different? Yeah. But the style of play, that comfort and everything else was always the same.”
At this point, Matthew had to take a break because his 4-year-old daughter was calling from the east coast to say goodnight. She sounds like a funny, charming young lady and it was a treat to hear about his experience as a father and see that side of him.
Josh brought up the Steelers defensive schemes and asked Butler where he would be most comfortable, given the range of zero tech, three tech, and five tech along defensive line. While he never directly answered the question from the personal standpoint, it was still impressive to hear him break down the nuances of what the Steelers do off the top of his head. This is a player that has an extremely high football IQ.
Perhaps his best response came when I asked him if there was an NFL team that he watched this season and thought that adding him to the roster could get them to the next level. While he acknowledged that he considers himself a good player, he immediately added that he still has so much work to do. He mentioned TJ Watt as an example of a player that is possibly the best player in the league but still wakes up every day and wants to be better at something else. Work ethic and effort is not going to be an issue.
Butler has a serious approach when evaluating his and the team’s performance. He mentioned the team’s failure to win the SEC and the national championship as how he measures a successful season in the way NFL players look at a Super Bowl victory. While he certainly doesn’t seem like someone who looks to the stat sheet to promote himself, he was clearly proud of the stamina he showed in the number of games (52), starts (25), and snaps (88 versus Kentucky, 70 or so against Ole Miss). But it’s a quiet pride in what he brings to the team, not a way of expecting attention.
A clear leader on and off the field with an extensive list of honors, Butler explained his view on that: “I was always trying to cement myself as a leader while also learning how to be a leader and while being a good follower to my coaches and other leaders too. It all goes hand in hand. Can you lead, can you follow? Can you be there for somebody? Can you be there with somebody? And that was the whole time that was since I was a freshman.” He added that one of the greatest compliments is when a teammate commends him as a leader when being interviewed.
Oh, and don’t let the serious approach fool you into thinking Butler isn’t funny. He has a sly sense of humor. When we asked about which players in the SEC were the most challenging to line up against, he said that Kentucky Wildcat OT Darian Kinnard is surprisingly quick but not precise with his hands, adding that he finished his blocks. Butler then shared a story about a play where Kinnard didn’t really even necessarily block him on a play. Butler tripped and Kinnard just jumped on top of him and tried to make it look like he caused it. As he tells it, Butler’s reaction to that play and again three plays later when Kinnard jumped offsides had us laughing hard. He’s not afraid to trash talk on the line a bit but he’s smart enough not to get noticed by the officials or the cameras.
Another anecdote that will be particularly interesting to Steelers fans involves Dan Moore Jr, the current Pittsburgh LT who played for Texax A&M and faced Butler last year. They talked extensively after the game, and Moore praised Butler’s play. While the defensive lineman seems reluctant to automatically take that too seriously, it’s clear that it meant something to hear that positive feedback from an opponent.
We finished up our conversation with Butler’s preparation for the draft. He is currently doing more individual training rather than with a group of linemen. He is primarily working with Robert Ayers, who played defensive end for the Broncos, Giants and Buccaneers for 10 years. One of his goals is to improve his technique and he’s also hoping to get a bit faster when he runs the 40. He plans to impress at the Combine but wants his vertical to remain a surprise…so no predictions were offered today.
Matthew Butler seems to check off every trait an NFL coach could wish for. We’re looking forward to seeing him practice this week, play in the East West Shrine Bowl and continue his journey to the 2022 NFL draft.