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Tennessee's Theo Jackson celebrates after a tackle during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Missouri Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

KNOXVILLE — University of Tennessee senior defensive back Theo Jackson's turn at the podium was almost over Tuesday afternoon when a soft, deep Barry White-like voice from the back of the room asked, "Is there any place in Knoxville you would recommend for a burger?"

Breaking into a grin over his teammate and classmate Matt Butler's question, Jackson replied, "I would, actually. MOOYAH. You should try the Jackson Special and the Butler Burger."

Sadly, we don't yet have a MOOYAH here in Chattanooga. But if we did, the Jackson Special, at least Jackson's description of it — a double cheeseburger with bacon, barbecue sauce, fries and a shake — sounds pretty irrisistable.

As for the Butler Burger, the big defensive lineman described his sandwich as a "Burger with Swiss cheese, fried onions, mushrooms and mayonnaise. It's a fantastic burger."

While it wasn't clear if this was a Name, Image and Likeness deal with MOOYAH, or just the restaurant chain showing two of its better customers some love, there is little doubt that Butler and Jackson will be wrapping up fantastic careers when they run through the "T" a final time Saturday afternoon against Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium.

Two of the proud yet few remaining members of the recruiting class of 2017, the pair has been forced to adapt to three different head coaches — Butch Jones, Jeremy Pruitt and first-year coach Josh Heupel — endure three losing seasons and numerous other heartbreaks on the field since first arriving on Rocky Top for Jones' final campaign.

But unlike so many of their original classmates, Butler and Jackson not only toughed it out, they became stars this fall on what should go down as one of the most beloved and important teams in school history if they can beat the Commodores to finish with a 7-5 record, including 4-4 in Southeastern Conference play, and land in a mid-level bowl game.

"We wanted to leave this place better than we found it," said Jackson. "Obviously, it is going in the right direction. Coach has turned this program around. But (the seniors) are also leading the team."

Said Butler, looking back on that 4-8 season in 2017 and last year's 3-7 record under Pruitt, but also the Gator Bowl win over Indiana in 2019, as well as this season: "We've been around each other for the very, very thick and the very, very thin. There's very few of us left (from their recruiting class), but we're close in a lot of ways. We'll be friends forever."

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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee's defensive front, which includes veterans such as Matthew Butler, was praised by new head coach Josh Heupel after the second scrimmage of the spring.

To listen to defensive coordinator Tim Banks, the two may be remembered forever within the program, perhaps in much the same way former linebacker Al Wilson is for leading the 1998 Vols to the national championship.

"The Theo that we inherited was a guy that was very much attention to detail, was very much invested in his teammates and making sure he's bringing it each and every day," said Banks of Jackson. "He's worked really hard all year, and he's obviously had a tremendous season for us. He's shown a lot of grit, a lot of determination."

As for Banks' view of Butler, well, "Matt's been everything. Our young guys can watch what a true pro looks like. He just goes about his business every single day. He doesn't have to say it because he walks it every day."

Butler may be a man of few words, but he can deliver some of the most powerful words uttered by these Vols.

For instance: "You can't dabble in things with people who have nothing to lose because you have everything to lose."

Or this: "It's not easy to tune outside noise out and keep going, to feed off positive energy and push out negative energy. But I know what's good and what's bad."

Maybe next to General Neyland's Maxims, the locker room walls could add a few of Butler's Truths.

Not every season ends in a championship, of course. The Vols haven't won a league or national title since that 1998 team. But it could be argued that no season since that one may leave a better taste in the Big Orange Nation's mouth than this one, especially if it ends in a bowl win.

And should that happen, Jackson and Butler will be huge reasons for that affection, though they're just as appreciative of those who'll cheer them on in Neyland for the final time on Saturday.

"The fans are what I'll miss the most," said Jackson. "The crazy fans, man. Just the smiles on their faces when we've made a big play."

Added Butler, "Vol Nation is going to bring out all 102,455 for this game, sell it out. That would mean the world to me. That would mean the world to these seniors."

As Banks discussed the seniors, he said of their season: "Obviously, we're a new staff coming in. These guys have done everything we've asked them to do. We really wish we could get those guys back. They've been tremendous."

Right down to the gourmet burgers that now bear their names.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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