For years, Vernon Butler was firmly in the speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick camp, preferring to let his play do the lion’s share of the talking. Which led to this question this summer: How would Louisiana Tech’s top defensive tackle handle, as a senior, switching to more of a lead vocalist role after so much time holding down a wicked backbeat?
“It wasn’t hard,” said Butler, whose Bulldogs (4-3, 2-1 conference) host Middle Tennessee State (3-4, 2-1) Saturday in a Conference USA showdown televised nationally by ASN. “Running in the summertime, you’d be out there and help some of the guys up when guys were struggling going into the season. It wasn’t hard at all.”
Watch-listed for the Outland and Lombardi awards and a preseason all-conference selection, Butler has done plenty to raise the bar in Ruston. At 6-3, 316 pounds the cat makes for a pretty good tug-of-war anchor, too. And if you’re not pulling on your share of the rope, big No. 9 will let you know.
“Yeah, basically, I’m more ‘Watch me and I’ll show you how to do it,’” Butler said. “If I have to, I’ll teach them how to do it.”
For the most part, the lessons have stuck. With Butler serving as linchpin, the Bulldogs lead Conference USA in fewest rushing yards allowed per game (108.3) and yards allowed per carry (3.3). Of the first seven dance partners out of the chute, Tech’s held four of them under 100 yards on the ground — including Mississippi State (93 yards on 30 carries) last weekend.
Butler hasn’t shied away from the big dogs, either, recording three solo stops and recovering a fumble at Kansas State on Sept. 19 while collecting one solo tackle, two assists and combining on a tackle for loss against SEC opposition this past Saturday.
“I watched film on Vernon Butler,” Middle Tennessee State offensive lineman Darius Johnson told GoBlueRaiders.com earlier this week, “and he’s really big and physical. Their whole line is big and physical, but at the end of the day I don’t think it matters what they’re doing because I believe that it’s about what we’re going to do.”
Butler has a sinking feeling he’s going to see more of the same: Double-teams. Triple-teams. Guys rolling to try and take out his legs. Respect often comes at a price, and sometimes that price just happens to be your kneecap.
“Yeah,” Butler said. “Because I’ve never had a back coming (at me) out of nowhere (before). I’ve really noticed that a lot this year. A whole lot.”
He’ll play a little ‘3’ technique. A little nose. And yet, within that jumble of bodies, they always seem to find him.
Respect can be strange that way.
“It shows a sign of respect that they’ve got to account for you,” he said. “If you’re not (accounted for), you’re in the backfield, wreaking havoc.”
Havoc, Butler knows plenty about, having recorded a team-best five quarterback hurries, four tackles for loss and two sacks this season. His 26 tackles this fall have pushed his total to 67 stops over the past season-and-a-half — a pretty good clip for a guy facing double-teams every week.
“I’m really just worried about the season, winning the next game,” Butler said. “I don’t even think about what’s down the road yet.”
He thinks about the little things, such as hand placement and position. He thinks about busting his tail to get stronger, bumping his power clean to 338 pounds and his squats to 625 this fall — nearly 100 pounds more than a year ago at this time.
Plus, there’s the yoga.
“I’m pretty flexible,” Butler said. Then he laughed. “To a certain extent.”
And a little flexibility never hurt anybody, especially where the pro scouts are concerned. In August, NFL.com pegged Tech’s defensive stopper as a “Top-150” draft prospect, a classic “rotational inside player,” a pocket-pusher with good feet.
Those feet have always been a strength, the core of a powerful base — Butler was a forward, and a good one, on his hoops team at Summit (Miss.) North Pike High School. Press him, and he’ll tell you that Air Jordans are the kicks of preference, Kevin Durant his baller of choice.
After all, even the elite teachers want to learn from the best.
“(Young players) are looking up to me,” Butler said. “They’re looking at what I’m going to do next, watching my movement and stuff. It feels good. I like it. It motivates me to do better, to know that somebody’s watching me.”
And here’s the cool part: More are watching all the time.