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Bulls' Butler strides right in defense

When told coach Jim Leavitt labeled him a perfectionist, South Florida freshman Jason Butler shook his head and smiled.

Not me, said the linebacker (hinting Leavitt is one who deserves the moniker). It's just that he decided since he's only been on campus a few months, he should do what he's told and stay out of trouble.

Especially when Leavitt _ who is first and foremost a defensive coach _ is hanging around. Which is pretty much all the time.

"You try to be a perfectionist just to stay out of his doghouse," Butler said. "Ninety percent of the time he's with the defense, and 85 percent of that time he's probably with the linebackers."

Under a microscope every day in practice, Butler found himself in the spotlight during USF's game against Southern Illinois two weeks ago. The former Bartow High standout got his first start and responded with a team-high 13 tackles in the 23-10 loss.

The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Butler, who turned 19 last week, is a little on the small side, and the consensus among coaches is he'll need to visit the weight room often in the off-season. But Leavitt liked what he saw against Southern Illinois, especially considering Butler is learning a defense totally different from what he played at Bartow.

"He's got an ornery disposition on the field, which is good," Leavitt said. "I like him a lot. He plays to win."

That may be because Butler is used to it. Last season at Bartow, he totaled 184 tackles in helping lead the Yellow Jackets to a Class 4A state title. In the final he had 14 tackles as Bartow upset Jacksonville Bolles, the nation's No. 1 team, 14-13.

Now that he's in the lineup, the Bulls' coaches expect he'll soon be providing similar effort and leadership.

"He expects a great deal out of himself," defensive coordinator Rick Kravitz said. "He's very frustrated when it doesn't go his way. He's got the perfect attitude for a linebacker. He takes charge."

Kravitz, too, calls him a perfectionist. If Butler is one of those, it may be because he thinks he has a lot to measure up to. He comes from a long line of determined athletes.

One cousin played baseball for Louisiana State when the Tigers won the College World Series. Another cousin held the state high school record for career points in basketball. An uncle was captain of the Florida baseball team. His older sister used to run marathons.

"I'm not the worst athlete" in the family, Butler said, "but (one of) the lowest."

That may be, but Leavitt and Kravitz were more than happy to land Butler, who is on scholarship for football but also plans to play baseball at USF.

They didn't begin recruiting Butler until late January because they thought they had no more spots for linebackers. Once the three started talking, though, Butler liked what he heard.

He was being recruited by Division I-A schools such as Alabama and Kentucky for football, but none of the other schools was happy with the idea of him playing baseball too.

"No one wanted a middle linebacker and a outfielder," Butler said.

But USF didn't mind. So about a week after meeting Leavitt and Kravitz, Butler signed on.

When he arrived, the coaches considered redshirting him because of his size. But Butler didn't want to wait. So while spending extra time in the weight room, he focused on using his speed more than his strength.

Butler has played more as the season has progressed. He has played in six of USF's seven games and made 35 tackles, tied for fourth on the team. But so far, the Southern Illinois game has been his shining moment.

Not only did he lead the team in tackles, he was instrumental in USF's successful goal-line stand in the first quarter. On second and goal from the 2, he stuffed SIU's Karlton Carpenter, stopping a sure touchdown.

It made for a nice memory but a somewhat unsatisfying one because of the loss. He still considers the victory over Bolles his finest moment, and probably will unless the Bulls win a championship.

Three years from now, Butler wants to have earned a second ring.

"That's what it comes down to," he said, "the little thing you put on your finger."