KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett’s teammates and coaches have told the story so often that it’s taken on legendary proportions.
Volunteers coach Butch Jones mentioned early in training camp how Barnett caught running back Devrin Young after chasing him down the sideline “about 30 yards.” When defensive tackle Jordan Williams mentioned the same play three months later, he said Barnett ran Young down “from like 60 yards.
Whatever distance Barnett actually traveled on that particular play, it set the tone for one of the most productive seasons by any true freshman this year.
“I’ve got high expectations for myself,” Barnett said. “God gave me a bunch of talent, so I’ve got to use it in the correct way to help this team. I thought I could help this team out.”
Barnett has recorded 10 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss. He ranks third among all Football Bowl Subdivision players with 1.7 tackles for loss per game.
— Derek Barnett
Now he gets a chance to cap this big season with a huge opportunity as Tennessee (6-6) faces Iowa (7-5) and Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Jan. 2 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Although Tennessee defensive line coach Steve Stripling has said various players will line up against Scherff over the course of the game, Barnett figures to match up with him often.
“It is a great opportunity but also a great challenge,” Jones said. “He is going against an individual who is going to be a first-round NFL draft pick, has played a lot of football games, has maturity and [has been in] a full-time college football program for a number of years. So this will be his biggest challenge to date.”
Barnett has met every challenge thus far.
Although he didn’t arrive on campus until the summer, Barnett made enough of an impression in training camp to become the first true freshman defensive lineman in school history to start a season opener. He got better as the year wore on and produced nine sacks during his past six games.
“As every game progressed, I kind of calmed down,” Barnett said. “Early in the season, I started off really slow. I thought I was kind of playing a little nervous. But as I played more and more, I just kind of got a better feel for it and my teammates kept on guiding me.”
The arrival of Barnett and the return of Curt Maggitt from a knee injury that sidelined him for the entire 2013 season have dramatically improved Tennessee’s pass rush. Maggitt and Barnett have combined for 21 sacks. The only FBS duos with more combined sacks at the end of the regular season were Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha and Andrew Hudson (29.5), and Utah’s Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick (27.5).
Tennessee has 35 sacks and 88 tackles for loss, up from 18 sacks and 65 tackles for loss last season.
Barnett’s numbers haven’t come because he’s feasted on the weaker opponents on Tennessee’s schedule. He recorded three sacks each against Ole Miss and South Carolina.
Teammates have marveled at his consistency, something that’s been apparent since that moment he chased down Young in training camp.
Stripling said success hasn’t changed the Barnett, a freshman from Nashville, at all. In fact, Stripling says the way Barnett handles the attention coming his way now reflects his businesslike approach.
“His resiliency is just very matter-of-fact,” Stripling said. “He never gets high, never gets low, just handles the grind. He handles the accolades. The other day I said, ‘Are you sending your mom some of these things?’ [He said], ‘No.’ So I send them to her.”
Barnett shrugs off the descriptions of his tireless work ethic. He considers football too enjoyable to think of it as working at all.
“When I’m on the field, it’s not really work for me,” Barnett said. “It’s just kind of fun.”
He’s been having plenty of fun on the field lately.