Rookie Vernon Butler has a deal with the veteran defensive tackles on the Panthers’ roster.
Butler, the Panthers’ first-round pick from Louisiana Tech, supplies the older guys with candy and salty snacks for their position meetings, carries their gear up the hill after practices and furnished the stereo in their corner of the locker room.
In return, the vets offer advice, tips and words of wisdom to a player whom Panthers coach Ron Rivera agrees is a work in progress.
Butler figures the rookie duties are a small price to pay for the on-field pointers he’s getting.
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“I’m cool with all that. They’re good guys. They don’t mean no harm by it,” Butler said this week at Wofford. “Whatever they need, I get it for them. I know they had to do it, too.”
Butler’s jump from Conference USA to the NFL has not been without its hurdles.
During 1-on-1 drills against the offensive line Sunday, Butler was stuffed on consecutive reps without having gotten much penetration. After practice that day, Butler hit the blocking sled while defensive line coach Eric Washington looked on.
In addition to the help he’s receiving from the veteran tackles, Butler also will be spending a lot of his free time with Washington, whom he calls “Coach E.”
“He wanted me to get off the ball more and use my hands,” Butler said of his post-practice session Sunday. “That’s one thing I’ve been really working on with him. It’s going to come along.”
In the lead-up to this year’s draft, the knock on Butler was his inability to finish plays. He spent plenty of time in opponents’ backfields in college, but collected only five sacks in four seasons in a wide-open, passing league.
When the Panthers took Butler with the 30th pick in this year’s draft, team officials were confident Butler would be disruptive as a pass rusher and penetrator. And though it’s only been five practices, Butler has yet to make plays to catch the attention of his coaches.
“The one thing that I’d like to see him do is finish,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “You watch him get in certain positions during the play and he may be in a positive position. But he’s not learning how to finish that position off and put himself in a position to make plays.”
“Just because you’ve got a step on your guy doesn’t mean you’ve won,” Rivera added. “And that’s what he has to learn. He has to get that feel.”
Butler, 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds, seems to be a willing student. He stays in close proximity to Washington on the practice field and seems genuine in his appreciation for the assists he’s received from the likes of Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei and Kyle Love.
“That’s one of the things I like about the room -- all those guys are so good,” Butler said. “They’re not like some of the other vets. They come and help me. KK helps me out every day, Star, K-Love. They all help me everyday with technique and what I do wrong.”
A scouting report on NFL.com before the draft pointed out that Butler “will try to out-muscle his opponent when his initial pass rush gets stuck in neutral, rather than use counter moves.”
During the Panthers’ first week in Spartanburg, Butler seems to be getting a good initial push before struggling to shed his blocker.
“Getting the offensive lineman’s hands off and running to the ball,” Butler said. “That’s how you finish plays.”
Rivera has no issues with Butler’s conditioning. Butler said he ran outside during the heat of the day in Louisiana this summer to prepare for Spartanburg’s humidity.
And while Rivera understands Butler has work to do, there are certain expectations of a first-round pick.
“Our No. 1’s play. We don’t bring them in to have them develop,” Rivera said. “Now, how much he’ll play is going to be dependent on how well he’s learning and how quickly he’s growing as a football player.”
Love, beginning his fifth season, said the veterans know Butler’s roster spot is secure and want him to become a better player.
“It’s good to have those older guys. They can kind of show him the ropes a little bit, teach him something outside the box than what he’s learning in the classroom,” Love said. “Every day I’m trying to help him, whether I’m here or not. I want to make sure he’s the best that he can be just by little clues or little hints I can give him.”
Love doesn’t appear to be overwhelmed in his first training camp. He joked with the media about the junk-food provisions he brought to Spartanburg for the older players -- a stash that included sunflower seeds, Skittles, Honey Buns and Snickers.
“I just picked up a lot of stuff and put it in a big, ol’ drawer,” said Butler, who grew up in Mississippi. “It was all gummy bears, gummy worms, all kind of stuff. No healthy stuff.”
But Butler, nicknamed “Big Vern,” has maintained a healthy perspective on his outlook for his rookie season.
“There’s pressure there. But I don’t let it get to me,” he said. “If you work hard it’s all going to pay off. At the end of the day I’ll be playing and making plays.”