John Butler wants Penn State to play a fast, aggressive style of defense.
His rise to the unit’s top post can be summarized in similar terms.
The events that led to Butler’s promotion from secondary coach to defensive coordinator transpired at a dizzying pace.
Former defensive coordinator Ted Roof informed coach Bill O’Brien of his decision to make a lateral move to Georgia Tech on Wednesday morning. Shortly after Roof left the office, O’Brien met with Butler.
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O’Brien announced the promotion. Butler thanked O’Brien for the opportunity, asked what the second-year head coach needed and returned to work.
No job search. No negotiating period.
“You accept your responsibility and move on,” Butler said Thursday.
Leading a defense that allowed just 19.1 points per game last season represents the biggest responsibility of Butler’s coaching career.
The 39-year-old has never worked as a Division I coordinator and he’s still less than a year removed from leaving a job coaching special teams and linebackers at South Carolina to join O’Brien’s staff. Coordinating Penn State’s defense is Butler’s fourth different position since 2010.
He said the new role will not change how he acts. He brings moxie to sidelines, practice fields and meeting rooms. His intense stare can induce trembles. His voice can be heard above the noise created by more than 90,000 fans.
Butler hails from Philadelphia, a city known for producing gritty, demonstrative workers who willingly accept difficult assignments. This job comes with public scrutiny.
“I’m prepared for this,” he said. “I put 20 years into coaching to get ready for this. When the opportunity comes, ... one thing about me is that I’m never going to shy away.”
Butler hasn’t spent the early stages of his tenure reconstructing the defense. Roof installed schematic changes last spring, summer and fall. Butler considers Roof one of his biggest coaching influences.
Roof emphasized multiple looks and aggressive tactics. Penn State tries to play fast within a flexible framework, so making rapid adjustments doesn’t faze Butler, who coached a thin secondary last season.
Butler used last year’s 24-21 overtime victory over Wisconsin as an example of how he approaches Saturdays. The Badgers scored twice in the first nine minutes. The Nittany Lions altered their looks and held Wisconsin scoreless in the second and third quarter and most of the fourth.
“When teams are having success against us, we are going to change some things,” Butler said. “That’s aggressive. We’re not going to sit back and say, ‘I hope this is going to work. We don’t have any other options.’ We’re going to say, ‘This isn’t working. We’re trying this.’ That’s the aggressive mentality.”
To maintain continuity, Butler will lean on veteran Penn State assistants Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden. Johnson has coached the defensive line since 2000. Vanderlinden has coached linebackers since 2001.
“They are fully invested in everything that has happened in the past here on the field, everything that happened last year and everything we are going to do moving forward,” Butler said.
O’Brien is mulling options for Butler’s former roles. Besides coaching the secondary, Butler worked with parts of the kicking and punting games. Butler said he wants to continue working with defensive backs.
“I’m still going to be involved in the secondary,” he said. “Whether I coach the corners or whether I coach the safeties, that will be determined. I’m going to maintain a coaching role. I’m not going to be a walk-around coordinator.”
The secondary returns starting safeties Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Malcolm Willis and talented junior cornerback Adrian Amos. Former cornerback Stephon Morris said players are glad O’Brien quickly promoted Butler.
“With him being young, he’s easy to relate to,” said Morris, who played for Butler last season. “He helps out anybody on the team. I know this is a big move for him and his career. It definitely adds something extra to his résumé. I’m just glad he got the job here instead of elsewhere.”
For now, Butler is leaving the celebration over his promotion to others.
“We don’t have much time to think about it,” he said. “You get your marching orders and move on.”