MOBILE, Ala. — In four seasons at Louisiana Tech, Vernon Butler was rarely the biggest name on the marquee.
Record-breaking running back Kenneth Dixon often held the spotlight. Jeff Driskel’s arrival from Florida grabbed a lot of headlines last season.
But when the three Bulldogs descended on Ladd-Peebles Stadium for Senior Bowl practices this week, the massive defensive tackle stepped into the spotlight, a possible first- or second-round pick at the most loaded position in the upcoming NFL draft.
Butler had plenty to prove in Mobile. Being a part of the deepest position in the draft means teams have plenty of options. Butler’s task at the Senior Bowl was to live up to the reputation he already built in matchups against some of the best interior linemen available in this draft.
“It’s not about what’s on your helmet or your jersey, it’s about what’s in your heart,” Butler said. “No matter where you went to school, you can still be the top player.”
Butler largely lived up to the billing.
After measuring in at a massive 6-foot-3, 325 pounds — bigger than every defensive tackle other than Clemson nose tackle D.J. Reader — Butler showcased impressive power and surprising quickness for a man his size, cementing his reputation as a player who can create havoc in backfields.
Defensive tackles are typically broken into two categories in the NFL draft: nose tackles, the massive space-eaters who eat up blocks and anchor a run defense but rarely make highlight-reel plays; and 3-technique tackles, men capable of lining up on the shoudlder of the guard and knifing through to get to the quarterback.
Butler is big enough to handle the nose but projects as a 3-technique player — a key position of need for plenty of NFL teams, including the New Orleans Saints. A team with defensive end Cam Jordan and a trio of promising young edge rushers, the Saints might be on the lookout for an active interior player capable of stepping into the lineup and wreaking havoc in a position that was occupied by 35-year-old Kevin Williams for most of this season.
Williams played 555 snaps for the defense, an incredible number for a 13-year veteran.
Butler could fit as a player big enough to help the NFL’s 31st-ranked run defense and quick enough to help the pass rush.
“I think his best football’s ahead of him,” Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said. “He played 3-technique, he played shade, he even lined up at a 5-technique (defensive end) sometimes. He’s very versatile because of his size and athleticism, he can do a lot of different things.”
Butler was a big get for Louisiana Tech in the 2012 recruiting class. Widely coveted out of North Pike High in Summit, Mississippi, Butler had offers from SEC schools like Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Kentucky, but the Bulldogs felt like the right fit.
“I came in on a visit,” Butler said. “Felt like a family bond, the vibe I was getting there — I just loved it.”
Butler developed into a pillar for the Bulldogs defense, an easygoing player with the kind of leadership style that puts teammates at ease.
Holtz said NFL teams should have no concerns about Butler’s character. Louisiana Tech had no off-the-field issues with Butler in his four seasons there, and the big defensive tackle is the kind of player who helps keep a locker room together.
“I’m a jokester. Cool, outgoing person, fun to be around. Never a dull moment,” Butler said. “It helps a lot. Somebody can be having a bad day, bad practice, I find them and cheer them up.”
Butler’s impressive performance at the Senior Bowl helps cement his standing among a group of defensive tackles that only looks better after a week in Mobile.
Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins, Ohio State’s Adolphus Washington, Alabama’s Jarran Reed, Penn State’s Austin Johnson and Temple’s Matt Ioannidis all had good weeks, proving the theory that a team like the Saints might still be able to find help at defensive tackle if it doesn’t take a player at the position in the first round.
“It shows you how good these defensive tackles are that are coming,” Butler said. “The guys in the bigger conferences, for me to be able to play with them, it’s a blessing.”
And Butler has already shown he belongs.