“Devrin broke out and looked like he was headed for the end zone,” senior defensive tackle Jordan Williams recalled. “But (Derek) Barnett ran him down and caught him.”
That was quite a feat since Young is a 5-foot-8, 171-pound senior speedster and Barnett is a 6-foot-3, 267-pound freshman defensive end. Barnett wasn’t through showing off just yet, however.
“You’re going to be gassed from that a little bit,” Williams said, “but the very next play Derek ran in there, caused a fumble and we got the ball back. That’s something freshmen don’t do.”
Actually, Derek Barnett does a lot of things “freshmen don’t do” … like lead all of Tennessee’s linemen in solos (25), assists (13) and total tackles (38). He leads all Vols in tackles for loss with 9.5, a number that ranks second in the SEC and No 22 nationally. He is first on the team in sacks (4) and second in hurries (3).
In addition to being big, strong, fast, tough and determined, Barnett is humble. When asked how he has been so productive, he gave all of the credit to his fellow defenders.
“I’ve got good players around me,” he said. “I’ve got A.J. (Johnson) and Jalen (Reeves-Maybin) behind me, so teams run away from them and give me some tackles.”
As Devrin Young can attest, running away from Barnett is no easy task. He absolutely refuses to give up on a play. Teammates have noticed.
“I’m really big on effort,” Vol safety LaDarrell McNeil recalled. “One time (in a preseason practice) the play went away from him and Derek ran all the way to the sideline and made the tackle. I was really impressed with that.”
So was Tennessee’s defensive line coach. Still, he felt compelled to rein in Barnett’s backside binges a bit.
“Actually, I’ve had to slow him down on the backside of plays,” Steve Stripling said with a laugh. “When he first got here he wanted to take off and run 40 yards whenever the ball went the opposite way. I said, ‘Whoa! You’ve to take the big picture. Make sure nothing (like a reverse) is coming back. Then you can run a play down from behind.’ But he never gives up on a play, and that’s a great quality.”
Barnett exhibits a lot of great qualities. For instance, he is surprisingly flexible for a guy his size.
“He has an attribute of bend that’s unusual for a freshman,” Stripling said. “He can really bend his knees and get low to the ground.”
Barnett also has more power than the typical rookie.
“He has what I call innate strength,” Stripling said. “I’m not saying his weight-room numbers are outstanding but some guys just have ‘man strength.’ It’s innate. You’re born with it. He has that.”
The Nashville native concedes that he has been blessed with considerable athleticism.
“I’m confident in myself,” he said. “God gave me a bunch of ability, so I feel like I can make a play at any moment. I have a positive mindset.”
In addition to his physical gifts, Barnett is ahead of the curve mentally. His football instincts are remarkable.
“Some guys take years to develop that; he walked in the door very instinctive,” Stripling said. “A guy can be blocking him, and he knows if the ball is coming out here (to his left) or here (to his right). That’s instinct, and he walked in the door with that.”
Barnett also exhibits a level of maturity that is rare for his age. He seems unaffected by whatever is happening around him.
“Halfway through (preseason) camp, when guys were getting worn down and tired and beat up, he never changed,” Stripling said. “He’s so resilient. That’s my favorite word for him. Nothing affects him. You can yell at him; he says, ‘OK, Coach.’ You can be nice to him; he says ‘OK, Coach.’ That’s a great quality, and he carried it right through camp, and that’s amazed me.”
Tennessee’s head coach noticed the same thing, citing it as the main reason Barnett has managed to thrive at a position (defensive line) in which college freshmen rarely make impact.
“The key is his level of maturity, both on and off the field,” Butch Jones said. “He’s a very even-keeled young man. I like his temperament. He’s extremely competitive and he’s very intelligent. I think the overriding factor is his overall maturity as a football player but also as a person – keeping things in perspective. He’s very quiet but he has that internal drive.”
That drive is tested on every snap. When a lineman loses a one-on-one battle, he also loses a little of his self-esteem.
“A cornerback might get beat on a route but he didn’t get physically beat,” Stripling said. “When you get beat on the defensive line you actually got handled. When that happens to Derek, he bounces back. He never gives up. Even when you’re getting your manhood tested he just keeps fighting back.”
With almost a month of preseason camp and 12 games spread over 14 weeks, college football is a real grind. Barnett conceded that his stamina is being tested but insists he still feels energized, physically and mentally.
“I haven’t felt the freshman wall yet, and hope I don’t,” he said. “I’m just going to keep coming to practice with the right mindset and keep plugging away.”
That approach has worked beautifully so far, as Vol teammates will readily attest.
“He’s been here half a year,” Williams noted, “and he doesn’t play like a freshman. I’ll tell you that.”
Derek Barnett speaks after loss to Ole Miss
Butch Jones during SEC teleconference