Zander Horvath Music City Bowl
Tennessee seniors Theo Jackson and Matthew Butler have seen plenty of bad times in their five years in Knoxville.
It started with the worst season in Tennessee football history and after their second head coach seemed to have the program moving in the right direction, the Jeremy Pruitt era cratered with a 3-7 2020 campaign.
“These guys in my class … the guys in the class above me, everyone here, we’ve been through a lot” Butler said. “I see this as another milestone. This is my last game but I’m just thankful to be apart of this community and program and to pave the way for this program to go places above and beyond everywhere we’ve been. … I’m just thankful to be apart of setting that standard. There’s no negative thoughts about this being my last game. I’m just going to go out there and ball.”
During and after the investigation that led to Pruitt’s termination, dozens of Tennessee players left the program for the transfer portal.
Neither Jackson nor Butler had been stars in their first four years in Knoxville, but they were solid players that earned playing time and certainly could have found playing time elsewhere. Instead, the two defenders stayed in Knoxville and bought into the challenge of trying to rebuild the Vols’ program under the third head coach in their tenure.
“I think a lot of coaches will tell you when they go into a new program, the older guys are the toughest guys to get to buy into it because they feel like they’re on the back end of their careers,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said. “To me, that hasn’t been the case at all inside of our program. I think we’ve had great buy-in from everyone throughout the course of the process. I don’t know when. I felt like the buy-in continued to grow throughout the course of it.
I think just continuing to create and energy and a buy-in from them, that there’s a 365 day out of the year plan to help them grow and be what they have dreamed and want to be. They all have high goals, and I think they believe in the process that we’ve put before them.”
After playing safety most of his first four seasons, Jackson moved to STAR and immediately solidified a position the Vols’ struggled at in 2020. In the season opener against Bowling Green, Jackson recorded a game high 11 tackles — including 2.5 for a loss — and three pass breakups.
The Nashville native would go on to have a career season, recording 73 tackles — 20 more than his previous season high — nine of his 12 career tackles for losses and 12 of his 20 career pass deflections.
Playing nearly 60 snaps a game, Jackson posted the second best PFF grade of any Tennessee defensive player.
The location of the Music City Bowl means Jackson is back in his hometown of Nashville playing the final game of his Tennessee career.
“It’s always a positive to go home,” Jackson said Tuesday. “Just doing it with the guys I started it with means a little bit more to do it there and with them.”
The former Overton High School standout said he expects 17 family members and friends to be at his final collegiate game before turning his focus to NFL Draft preparations.
Butler was a leader on this Tennessee defense from the start of the season, starting every game at defensive tackle.
The North Carolina native’s play spiked on the field as well as off. Butler recorded five of his 9.5 career sacks and 8.5 of his 16 career tackles for a loss this season. The defensive tackle also played a freakish amount of plays for an interior lineman, averaging over 55 snaps a game.
Butler’s 75.8 PFF grade was the third highest of anyone on Tennessee’s defense.
The fifth-year defender joked about practicing at instate rival Vanderbilt this week. After losing his first two games against Vanderbilt, Tennessee beat the Commodores his final three seasons.
“It’s so funny that we’re practicing at Vanderbilt,” Butler said. “It’s just hilarious. There’s nothing they can do about it. Just rub it in a little bit. I thoroughly enjoyed just walking on this field and kind of stomping on the V a little bit.”
Butler, Jackson and the rest of the Vols’ senior class will suit up in the orange-and-white one final time Thursday at 3 p.m. ET. ESPN will broadcast the game.