Aug. 29, 2010
By Matt Winkeljohn
It would not be accurate to say that Mario Butler was the least heralded member of Georgia Tech’s esteemed recruiting class of 2007, but neither was the senior cornerback a headliner.
Yet guess who from that group is in line to start the most games for the Yellow Jackets?
That would be Butler, whom head coach Paul Johnson recently suggested is so steady that, “you pretty much know what you’re going to get,” from him every time out because he’s so consistent.
When Butler starts Saturday’s season opener against South Carolina State, it will be the 28th time in his Tech career that he’s been at the opening post, tying him with former safety Morgan Burnett for most among the class of 2007. Burnett’s in line to start this season for the Green Bay Packers.
Butler’s next start will break his second-place tie with two other esteemed members of the `07 group who went to the NFL early. Defensive end Derrick Morgan of the Titans and running back Jonathan Dwyer of the Steelers started 27 times each for the Jackets.
Bet you didn’t know Butler was up there.
“He’s always been a guy that’s made his mind up. He sets his goals and says, `I want to do this,’ whether it be in the classroom or on the field,” said secondary coach Charles Kelly, the longest-tenured member of Tech’s coaching staff with five years on The Flats in the books. “There are some plays that you would like to say, `Ooh, I wish he’d have made that,’ but he doesn’t give up a lot of big plays.
“He’s one of those guys you don’t hear about a lot, and sometimes at corner those are the best guys.”
There’s some irony in Butler. He works in clear view of fans unable to simply blend in like linemen as he goes about his business. Yet as Kelly suggests, he frequently manages somehow to slip the spotlight.
The Jacksonville (Fla.) native is accustomed to that.
He not only was not one of the most hyped members of Tech’s ’07 recruiting class, but he wasn’t even the most hyped player back at Nease High (Fla.) that winter.
“It’s kind of crazy knowing we were playing on the same team and in practice we were going against each other,” Butler said of Tebow, a rookie with the Denver Broncos who won the Heisman Trophy and two national championships while at the University of Florida. “He was throwing the ball, and I’m trying to make an interception.”
Butler offered glimpses as a freshman in ’07, but not enough to portend the steady career that he’s carved out for himself.
He played in 12 games without starting, and contributed three tackles. Most of his work was on special teams. By the next summer, an imaginary light would go off over his head, and it shined brightly enough to help him understand some things that previously he did not as one of eight true freshmen to play in ’07 — joining Dwyer, Burnett, Morgan, Brad Jefferson, Joshua Nesbitt, D.J. Donley, and Scott Blair.
Butler has started every Tech game since.
“I came in ready to work, but I kind of got shocked on the field and didn’t play as much as I really thought I should play,” he explained. “I think it was a blessing in disguise because it helped me to be patient, and also deal with adversity.”
Kelly said Butler, who is a sociology major, became a better student on and off the field, and improved even more dramatically as a junior when he registered 45 tackles and assists with two interceptions and three pass breakups.
“He comes out to work every day. The older he’s gotten in the last year and a half or two, he uses constructive criticism to get better. He doesn’t take it as an attack,” Kelly said. “He studied a lot more last year than he did before. He’s up there all the time looking at something [in film study].”
As one of four seniors expected to start on defense, joining cornerback Dominique Reese (recruiting class of ’06) and linebackers Jefferson (17 career starts) and Anthony Egbuniwe (transfer), Butler is being counted upon to do more than break up and pick off passes. He needs to lead. His style matches his back story.
“He is a vocal guy, but he’s not a loud guy if that makes sense,” Kelly said. “He’s always talking, but you don’t hear him across the field like you do me. He’s been a really good example for [sophomore corner] Rod Sweeting not only on the field but away from the field with the way you’ve got to handle your business.
“He’s like a coach with the mentality who says, `If I’ve done everything I can do [to prepare], then I can live with the results.’ He does that as a player.”
Butler’s preparing this year to make more interceptions. He had two last season, one in ’08.
“[The game] slowed down for me, and I learned how to use my technique, and break down film and learn what receivers were trying to do, what they wanted to do against certain coverages,” he said. “I knew my assignments, but I was just trying not to get beat. Now that my senior year has come, I know when I can jump routes, what I can and can’t do.”