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Panthers first-round pick Vernon Butler arrived in big time after small-town start

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- North Pike High School isn't near much of anything in southwest Mississippi. There are a couple of nearby gas stations and a poultry processing plant that locals simply call the chicken plant. Were it not for the railroad coming through here many years ago, the town of Summit might not exist.

"We don't even have what you'd call a small Mississippi town," North Pike football coach Chris Smith said with a laugh.

So it was big news when the Carolina Panthers selected defensive tackle Vernon Butler in the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday.

Butler became the first player from North Pike selected in the first round, and only the second player selected at all. Safety Glover Quin went to the Detroit Lions in the fourth round of the 2009 draft.

Had Butler lived on the other side of the street, he would have gone to another school and North Pike still would be without a first-round pick.

But it was in this community where "everybody knows everybody" that Butler came the person and player the Panthers wanted to be a part of their community.

Butler, from Louisiana Tech, seemingly fits the culture the Panthers believe was a big part of their success during the 2015 season, which ended in the Super Bowl. He says "yes, sir" and "no, sir." He's humble and yet fun-loving with a bit of a prankster behind his deep, soft-spoken drawl.

He also fits the on-the-field philosophy that has helped Carolina to three consecutive NFC South titles. He's a big man who can disrupt the middle of an offense.

Big, as in 6-foot-4 and 323 pounds.

In the eyes of Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman, Butler was the ideal "hog molly," his affectionate name for big players.

But around North Pike High School, Vernon -- otherwise known as "Big V" -- is big because of the spotlight he put on this rural community.

"It's a big thing for our community," Smith said. "It's exciting to me. As I told somebody, I'm excited as he is."

Basketball star

Butler's dream was to follow in the footsteps of his father, Vernon Butler Sr., a guard who helped Northeastern Louisiana reach the 1982 NCAA tournament. The younger Butler talked about playing in the NBA.

"He sat out his ninth- and 10th-grade years [in football] to do basketball, because he thought he was going to be an NBA star," Smith said. "Then he stopped growing, so I told him, 'Look, you need to come back down to the football field and we'll get you a scholarship.'"

That happened.

Louisiana Tech was the first school to offer as most of the attention fell on A.J. Jefferson, who played the end spot opposite Butler. Jefferson was one of the "Dandy Dozen," the name for to the top high school players in Mississippi.

He was getting offers from Mississippi State, Ole Miss and other large schools. He ultimately chose State.

"Teams ran away from A.J.," Smith said. "Vernon really took that as a challenge. Finally, it got to the point where they didn't try to run at either one.

"That's a big thing that showed me he was really going to excel, because he took that challenge of being No. 2 and he did a great job with it."

Biggest fan

Skip Holtz inherited Butler from the previous staff when he was named the head coach at Louisiana Tech in 2013.

Nobody is a bigger fan of Butler now.

That was cemented on Thursday night. Holtz couldn't make it to Chicago to be by Butler's side because of a previous commitment in Orlando, Florida. But an hour before the draft, Holtz received a long text message from Butler. It began with Butler writing "just how much he appreciated me."

"He will really thrive in that culture that's being built there [at Carolina], just with the team aspect and the way they are doing it," Holtz said. "He's a phenomenal young man."

What Holtz loved most about Butler in games drove him nuts in practice.

"With me being involved with the offense in practice every day, [we] had to block him," he said. "So I would have to say to the defensive coordinator, 'Would you get Vernon out so we can get something done over here?'

"When he wants to be disruptive and he wants to get in the backfield, there aren't a lot of people that can stop him."

'Scratching the surface'

Butler had only five sacks in college, but Holtz says that was a product of the way the staff used him.

On third down, Louisiana Tech often went with three down linemen, asking them to take up blocks to allow others to create pressure with blitzes. Butler often demanded double coverages in that scheme. He also occasionally dropped into coverage.

It was because of that pressure, Holtz said, that Louisiana Tech led the nation in interceptions in 2014.

At Carolina, Butler will be used in a four-man front. He'll draw more one-on-one situations because those around him -- tackles Kawann Short or Star Lotulelei -- often will draw double teams.

That Butler will be asked to play 30 to 35 snaps instead of 70, as he often did at Louisiana Tech, also will make him more effective because he'll be fresher.

"He's just scratching the surface in terms of pass-rushing and how good he can be," Louisiana Tech defensive line coach Rick Petri said. "He's got power, No. 1, and he's got the ability to give you finesse."

Butler is as athletic as any man his size you'll find, one reason he was so good in basketball.

"I can remember seeing him making a tackle 30 yards down the field on the sideline on a run that breaks through," Petri said. "I can see him on an interception that we had, turning and leading and getting a block to help create a touchdown.

"Those are the things that epitomize him, the effort that he plays with."

Big-city look

Butler arrived for his high school banquet wearing a bow tie and horned-rimmed glasses that Smith swears made his star look like a "280-pound Urkel." He arrived at the banquet at Louisiana Tech wearing a yellow suit. He wore a maroon-colored tux jacket to the draft.

He might be from a small town, but Butler's style has a big-city feel.

"He likes his clothes and jewelry," Smith said. "He's going to look the part for sure."

But underneath the clothes is a player who believes in hard work and values, like those of the people he grew up around.

"As a player, I am going to come in and work hard every day," Butler said. "I am coming in to get better, and push my teammates to get better too. As a person, I'm respectable, someone you can get along with, easygoing type of guy."

These characteristics attracted the Panthers to Butler almost as much as his size.

They are a huge part of what makes Butler so big in his small hometown, where even before he became a millionaire in the draft he gave back to the community by talking to kids from the Boys & Girls Club.

He's so big that several draft parties were held for Butler in Summit and other nearby communities on Thursday. One was at Butler's church.

"They were FaceTiming my mom and they went crazy when they heard my name called, so that was pretty nice," Butler said. "It is small, but everybody knows everybody around there, so we're pretty close.

"Probably not much to do, but you find something to do."

Butler found a way into the NFL there.