Out of Plaquemine, UL safety Butler hungry for more
At Plaquemine High in Iberville Parish, Paul B. Distefano learned a lot about Percy Butler.
The Green Devils coach calls Butler, now a junior safety for the Ragin’ Cajuns, “a little angry.”
“Not as a person. Not off the field,” Distefano said. “He’s polite off the field.
“But when he gets on the field, I think he wants to take somebody’s heart out and feed it back to them through their face.”
The Cajuns – or more precisely their opponents – got a good taste of that last season, when Butler started 12 of the 14 games in which he played for 11-3 UL.
He wound up with 54 total tackles, third among all team leaders.
He had two nine-tackle games in the regular season, both coming against two of the Cajuns’ toughest opponents in 2019, Mississippi State and Appalachian State.
And he forced three fumbles on the year, two of them in the same mid-November win at South Alabama.
No wonder UL coaches are hungry for more of the same from Butler this season, which opens for the Cajuns on Saturday morning in ESPN-televised visit to No. 25 Iowa State.
“If you want to talk about playing good defense … ‘protecting the middle of the field first’ … Percy plays in the middle of the field for us quite a bit,” first-defensive coordinator Patrick Toney, also the Cajuns’ safeties coach, said of Butler, whom he calls a “post safety.”
“The biggest impact he made last year … is if the ball did break to the second level, he was able to get it down. So he kept it to an 8-, 9-yard game rather than letting it get explosive – which is huge in today’s game.
“He had a good year in 2019,” Toney added, “and we’re looking for him to take the next step and continue to play with consistency like he showed he can.”
But Butler – who was limited by a shoulder injury that eventually required surgery to six games and mostly special teams play as a true freshman in 2018 – doesn’t just do it in on the field.
He evidently does it in the locker room as well.
“The other thing Percy can do a great job (of) for us,” Toney said, “is take over a leadership role.
“Because he has played quality football. The guys in the locker room respect him. I think he can be a really good leader for us.”
UL head coach Billy Napier concurs.
“I think the big thing for Percy,” Napier said, “is he needs to continue to set a great example for the other players of how to work, how to prepare, how to be vocal and communicate as he continues a great career and continues to get better.”
LONG AND RANGY
As Butler sees it, doing both – performing, and leading – really does start with improved communication.
It’s something he made a priority this past offseason, which wasn’t always easy to do considering the limited contact he had with teammates for much of March, April and May due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that cost the Cajuns 12 of their 15 schedule spring practices and plenty of team training activities as well.
The proof of success rests in UL’s limited number of reported coronavirus infection cases, including – according to Napier on Wednesday night – no current positive tests.
It’s a testament, receiver Peter LeBlanc suggested, to the way the Cajuns have handled the COVID crisis as a team.
“I think that just comes with leadership, on both sides of the ball – like (quarterback) Levi (Lewis), Percy Butler, whoever is trying to take that leadership role,” LeBlanc said.
For Butler, keeping things clean on the field seems just as important – and he took it upon himself to be better at that this summer.
“I mostly made progress in communication – because first game, Mississippi State, that’s really like what messed us up (is) bad communication that whole game,” Butler said with reference to UL’s 2019 season-opening loss to the Bulldogs at the Superdome in New Orleans. “First four games (last year) we were having bad communication.
“If we would have talked before the play, and made the right change and adjustment, they wouldn’t have even scored,” Butler added. “So, I feel like I made a big step (with) communicating – and when you communicate, you help people around you and it makes you play faster and it makes everybody else play faster around you.”
At Plaquemine, where he also played receiver and was a member of the track-and-field team competing in the long jump and triple jump, Butler made himself heard during an 8-3 senior season in which he made 91 total tackles including 62 solo stops, broke up eight passes, forced three fumbles and recovered two.
“Percy’s long,” high school coach Distefano said the 6-foot Butler. “He’s super-athletic.
“He’s good enough to play corner, and he’s a great cover guy. But he’s playing safety because he’s such a good tackler.”
But wait, there’s more.
“The other thing he plays with is great range,” Toney said.
“In the middle of the field, he has what we call red line-to-red line range, where he can break and get sideline-to-sideline to help in coverage.
“He runs the alley really well,” the Cajuns’ new DC added. “So we’re looking for him to continue to improve on that.”
'WHY CAN'T THAT BE ME?'
if he can stay on the same path he’s headed down now, Distefano sees big things down the road for Butler.
But can he really be the next Cajun from Plaquemine to make it big-time, following in the footsteps of Brian Mitchell, the former UL quarterback who went on to play as a running back and star as a return man in the NFL from 1990 through 2003, mostly with the Washington Redskins, and now Kevin Dotson, the offensive guard selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the fourth round of this year’s NFL Draft?
“I think he’ll have a shot,” Distefano said.
“Coach Leger (Tim Leger, UL’s receivers coach and recruiting coordinator) told me when all the NFL scouts … were looking at film (of the Cajuns), all of them came out of the room wanting to know about No. 16.”
But before even thinking about NFL aspirations, Butler – who is wearing No. 9 this season – first had to get from Plaquemine to an NCAA FBS program.
Making the jump wasn’t easy, especially considering all the hurdles along the way.
“It was rough,” Butler said when asked was behind his drive to make it out of Plaquemine.
“We weren’t evil or nothing like that, but, everybody really, when you’re from, like, small towns, you really ain’t seen a lot of the world. So, it (didn’t) start kicking into my head until I (saw) people in the class before me get their scholarships.
“So I’m like, ‘Yeah, I got to do that,’ ” Butler added. “That’s really what motivated me.”
Now Butler sees Dotson in the NFL, and he’s spurred even more.
Two other Cajuns from last season’s LendingTree Bowl-winning club were drafted this year as well – offensive lineman Robert Hunt, a second-round selection of the Miami Dolphins, and seventh-round running back Raymond Calais Jr., now with the Los Angeles Rams.
“When you see older people doing it,” Butler said, “that just makes you think … ‘Why can’t that be me?’
“So that really motivated just to do the right thing, stay on the right track and keep my focus on the goal – and that was going D1, getting out of Plaquemine, or at least giving myself a chance to make it out of Plaquemine.”
Now, before getting too far ahead of himself, Butler – also a key contributor as a gunner on special teams last year – also must continue to prove he’s worthy of keeping his regular starting role.
Napier referenced him as a starter last week, but when UL’s depth chart was released Wednesday night Butler was listed as a co-starter at free safety along with Kam Pedescleaux.
Camerson Solomon was listed as a co-starter with Bralen Trahan at the other safety spot, while Ja’Len Johnson – with Brandon Bishop out due to a broken tibia sustained in a scrimmage – is ahead of Patrick Mensah at the nickel spot, where Pedescleaux also can play if needed.
“Much like last year, that safety group, the amount of snaps they play, and the rotation there, will be decided based off of how they perform,” Napier said.
“We’ve got lots of quality players there, and a lot of decisions will be made off of how they practice and kind of what we observe relative to their discipline, detail, their urgency and intensity throughout the week.
“So,” Napier added, “it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see a number of different lineups there in the secondary each and every week.”
But it wouldn’t shock Napier, either, to see Butler being the guy chewing things up back there, much like Distefano knows he can do.
“Percy’s unique,” Napier said. “I think Percy’s got some length.
“He’s not only fast, but he has really good play speed. He’s a good tackler, and he can match up. I think he’s a good man-to-man cover player.
“That first year Percy played, and he was a little bit banged up. But last year I think he took a big step forward,” Napier added. “I think Coach Toney has done a really good job with him. They have a really good relationship, and I think that’s pivotal for Percy and certainly for Coach Toney.”