Courtesy of the SBC
New Mexico State’s Rodney Butler didn’t want to play linebacker, at least not in the early days of his football-playing career. He had played on the offensive and defensive lines as a youngster and, truth be told, he liked playing those positions.
But things change and bodies change in the teen years. Those changes – Butler went from a short, chubby player to a taller, leaner version of himself – led to a change in where he played on the football field. Initially, he wasn’t exactly thrilled with the position change, though he didn’t mind personally when he hit a growth spurt that dictated a move from the trenches to a more athletic position.
“Football and basketball were both my sports, I just like football more,” the 6-foot-1, 235-pound junior from Palm Springs, Calif., said. “I started playing basketball first but I got into football more as I got older.
“My first position was on the offensive line and defensive line, in seventh and eighth grades, when I first started playing. I didn’t start playing linebacker until my freshman year in high school. I kind of leaned up and got taller, so I wasn’t used on the D line, though that’s where I wanted to play. My coaches said, ‘No, let’s move you to linebacker.’ I was a little longer and faster and I got adjusted to that.”
Did he ever.
Last season as a sophomore, starting 11 of 12 games, Butler was the Aggies’ leading tackler, making 119 stops, an average of 9.9 tackles per game. That total, second-best in the Sun Belt Conference, included 58 solo tackles, two forced fumbles and a quarterback hurry. He also had an interception and he quickly built a reputation around the league as a disruptive force.
On a team that finished 10th in the 11-team Sun Belt in total defense, having a consistent player like Butler played an integral role for the Aggies. This year, the expectations will be higher for the player who was named the Desert Sun Defensive Player of the Year following his senior season at Palm Springs High School.
“The biggest thing about Rodney is the athleticism that he brings to the table,” New Mexico State head coach Doug Martin said. “He really has tremendous speed and he can really cover sideline to sideline.”
To emphasize what he meant, Martin recalled a play Butler made last season against Sun Belt foe Idaho.
“It was a fourth-down play and Rodney came on a blitz,” Martin said. “He had the quarterback sacked and lost him and the quarterback made a throw about 10 yards down the field. Rodney got up, sprinted and made the tackle on the play and kept it from being a first down. That’s the kind of effort you get from him.
“He’s a tremendous leader and more or less a captain for our football team. He’s a tremendous student. He’s one of those guys who has worked hard to make himself a better player, working hard in the weight room and adding about 15 pounds from last year. He’s got a bright, bright future ahead of him.”
Butler said he recognizes there will be a lot expected of him this year, based on what he accomplished a year ago. And he’s OK with that.
“I kind of have a chip on my shoulder and I’ve tried to stand out,” he said. “Just for myself, honestly. I expect big things from myself and I feel, why not expect that from your team if you expect it from yourself? It’s a great way to win games, have everybody on the same page and with a mentality and intensity of getting to the ball.
“I love (the responsibility of the position and expectations). In our system, the linebacker makes a lot of plays, but I mostly like it because the linebacker has to know what everybody else is doing. I know the responsibility and roles of everybody else, so I’m there.”
He is not expecting a deficit in production from himself. The big sophomore year has only served to make him hungrier to do more and to make more impactful plays this season, he said, adding his tackle total was the result of “just trying to be a leader.”
“I didn’t expect it (the success of last year),” Butler said. “I expect a lot out of myself, but I don’t know what the outcome will be. I just give it my best and give 100 percent all the time and the outcome is the outcome. … It was a good feeling playing well, but mostly it was a good feeling to be playing well at the Division I level.”
Butler said he picked New Mexico State from other recruiting options out of high school because it reminded him of home.
“(Palm Springs is) a valley, small desert, and mostly I saw that in Las Cruces,” Butler said. “Plus, the people there are very friendly – great people, great atmosphere. It’s a real nice place.”
The trick now is helping the Aggies, who have posted just 25 total wins in the previous 10 seasons, including a 2-10 record last season, turn around the program and challenge in the Sun Belt Conference. The football-only Sun Belt member was 1-8 in league games in 2014.
“I feel we just need, as a whole, offense and defense, to come together and play with no regrets, just go out and have fun,” Butler said. “We need to know that in this conference anybody can beat anybody any given day, and the team with the less mistakes is going to come out on top.