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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee senior defensive end Matthew Butler makes a stop during last month's 30-17 loss at Auburn.

Tennessee senior Matthew Butler provided a quote reflective of 2020 earlier this week when asked about the future of the Volunteers up front defensively.

"We set a really good foundation of mental and physical discipline, and it's up to them to adhere to it," Butler said. "There is going to be pressure to adhere to it, because you see people have success. When you see people have success, you typically do what they try to do.

"For all I know, I might be right here with them."

When Tennessee (3-6) and No. 5 Texas A&M (7-1) collide at noon Saturday in the Neyland Stadium finale of this coronavirus-altered season, it will mark a certain farewell for Vols senior left guard Trey Smith, who spoke this week of the emotions he is sure to encounter before trying to become a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft. There are other seniors expected to move on, such as former starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, but what about someone like Butler?

With the NCAA allowing a free year of eligibility to seniors as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the 6-foot-4, 291-pounder from Raleigh, North Carolina, is among hundreds of players nationally faced with groundbreaking decisions.

"I've definitely thought about it, but I don't exactly know what I'm going to do," Butler said. "I've got a good while to figure out. I'm going to try and play really well in this game Saturday, and if we have have another opportunity to play a football game, I want to play really well in that and get two wins."

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Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee defensive lineman Matthew Butler is a senior, but with the NCAA granting a free year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he has the option of coming back for another season with the chance to improve his NFL draft prospects. He's unsure if Saturday's home game against Texas A&M will be his Neyland Stadium finale.

Another season in Knoxville could help Butler's draft chances, which don't appear to be all that strong for 2021. Pro Football Network ranks Butler as the 553rd-best prospect, well out of the draft selection landscape given that former Georgia linebacker Tae Crowder was the 255th and final pick this year.

Yet Butler is also on a career-best surge, having collected six tackles in games against Alabama, Arkansas and Auburn before racking up seven tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in last Saturday's 42-17 win at Vanderbilt.

"I'm going to be praying a lot, that's for sure," Butler said. "I'm going to be talking to my mom and dad and talking to people I trust and praying even more. There are a lot of factors that go into it."

Butler's decision could affect how third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt approaches the traditional signing date in early February. The Vols signed two defensive linemen in Wednesday's start to the three-day early period — KaTron Evans and Amari McNeill — and that number may grow a lot in the upcoming weeks or not at all.

"There are four senior D-linemen, and if all four of those guys decided to come back, it changes the room a little bit on how many guys you take," Pruitt said. "It has been a very unusual year."

It's been an unusual career for Tennessee's seniors, who arrived in time for the plummeting of the Butch Jones era, contributed to last year's 8-5 team but have experienced a six-game losing streak this season. It's been especially strange this season for the defensive linemen, who had position coach Jimmy Brumbaugh for all of four games before Pruitt fired him.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee defensive lineman Matthew Butler spreads his arms as he pressures UTC quarterback Nick Tiano on Sept. 14, 2019 in Knoxville. Tiano threw an interception on the play.

Butler cites his first game at Georgia Tech inside Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, his first tackle the following week against Indiana State, and his first career sack last season against Mississippi State as some of his favorite moments, along with the 2018 road upset of Auburn and securing a bowl trip a year ago at Missouri. He led Tennessee's defensive linemen last season with 45 tackles, and he has started all nine games this year.

Whether or not Saturday becomes his final home game for the Vols, there is no doubt the past few months will impact Butler greatly for years to come.

"It's all about resiliency," Butler said. "In life, you go through your ups, and sometimes your ups last for a long time, and you go through your downs, and sometimes your downs last for a long time. You just thank the Lord that you're able to make it through and that you're able to be resilient through the tough times.

"This has been an opportunity to check yourself and realize that a season, whether under normal circumstances or in the middle of a pandemic, is all about your resiliency and whether you're willing to do it again and again and again."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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