July 29, 2010
By Kyle Sears
Mario Butler hardly resembles the skinny 19-year old who three years ago at this time was nervously and anxiously preparing for his first week of Georgia Tech football practice. The senior cornerback, however, has many of those same feelings entering his fourth and final campaign.
And just as he did three years ago, Butler will use August learning a new defensive scheme and catch the eye of the head coach and defensive coordinator.
Butler, who came to The Flats from Jacksonville, Fla., turned his August, 2007 audition into a part-time gig, earning limited playing time in each Tech’s 12 regular-season games under then-head coach Chan Gailey.
Butler, who saw limited action as a true freshman, feels like he should have played more that season but has no regrets about playing as a 19-year old.
“I think it was a good thing,” Butler said, reflecting on that limited role his freshman year, “because it taught me how to be patient.”
The following spring, prior to his sophomore season, Butler would have to impress a new coaching staff. He focused on controlling what he could and remaining patient with everything else.
“I needed to just hone my skills and do everything I could to put myself in the best situation to be successful,” Butler said.
Now, as he awaits his last hurrah on The Flats, the 6-1, 180-pound Butler has been putting himself in the best situation to succeed for a while now. There have been 27 games since the beginning of his sophomore campaign, and he has started each of them.
“I just started building my confidence up from sophomore year on to now,” Butler said. “I’m a confident person on the football field. I’m just like, `If they throw the ball at me, they’re not going to succeed.'”
Butler has recorded more than 40 tackles each of the past two seasons and has three career interceptions.
Time has flown for Butler, a former high school teammate of Tim Tebow. It seems like yesterday that Tech spent Christmas in Boise instead of New Year’s in Miami.
It feels strange to him that he is now the grizzled veteran of the secondary. Suddenly, he’s the one teaching the young guys the ins and outs of playing corner in the ACC.
Butler has some learning to do as well. He’s playing for his third defensive coordinator in four years and learning a 3-4 defense being installed by veteran coach Al Groh.
The planets seem aligned for Butler in 2010. He has an opportunity to be a third-year starter on a team defending an ACC championship. He has one full season to open the eyes of NFL scouts and pursue his dream of playing professionally. And just as importantly to Butler, he is on track to graduate from Tech with a degree in sociology.
“There is a sense of urgency, because I know that this is my last year,” he said.
That sense of urgency, Butler says, is similar to what he felt as a true freshman.
“When you’re a freshman, it’s your first year, so there’s a sense of urgency for both parties. [As a senior], you just want so bad to do great, and as a freshman, you’re doing the same thing. You’re out there busting your tail trying to get noticed, trying to be in situation just to play and not go into a redshirt.”
Though Butler may sometimes feel like a freshman learning Groh’s new defense, he has not shied away from the leadership duties expected of an upperclassman.
“I’m a rah-rah guy when it comes to game day, but as far as practice goes, I just kind of lead by example,” he said. “I’m a hard worker. I know by working hard it’s going to rub off on everybody else.”
“I think that’s been a neat thing to get to pass down knowledge to the younger guys who really don’t know what to expect. They come to you and ask you for things. `What do you think I should’ve done here? What do you think I should’ve done there?’ And you’re able to tell them now because you’re so experienced,” he said.
Butler’s evaluation of the new crop of corners and safeties: “They’re pretty good. Everybody came in ready to contribute.”
Groh, who has decades of experience on the college and NFL levels, has clearly made an impression on Butler and the other DBs.
“Coach Groh is a great guy. Anytime you need any help with anything, his door is always open,” Butler said.
“He’s really a fiery guy, a competitor. He wants you to be tough. The way he preaches everything, the players on defense attach to his personality, and we all want that personality — feisty, tough, and everything else that comes along with him.”
Butler had toughness even before the arrival of Johnson or Groh. Missing a game because of injury is out of the question and he rarely sits out of practice despite previously battling a high ankle sprain and other nagging ailments.
If Tech can advance to postseason play for the 14th consecutive season, Butler can finish his career with more than 40 career starts. That would, of course, mean that Butler would have to continue to beat out some talented teammates to hold on to his starting job. One key, Butler says, is to avoid giving up the big play.
“If people give up big plays out there at corner, you’re not able to last as long. I’ve been fortunate enough — not giving up big plays — that I’ve been able to stay out there, earn my spot, and just keep rolling,” Butler said.
As Butler officially embarks on his final season, starting with the first practice on Thursday (Aug. 5), he has never been more optimistic about the potential of the Yellow Jackets.
“I think the bond that we have right now is so close,” he said. “You just get that feel like, `Oh, okay, this might be the year that we take it above the ACC Championship and compete for a national championship.’
“I’m just ready to get everything started. It’s my last year here, so I’ve got to give the fans everything I’ve got. I want to have no regrets. I want to play my heart out, go out and practice my heart out, go in and watch film, correct my mistakes, and everything like that.”