Barnett set an SEC freshman record with nine sacks this fall, so passers tend to roll away from his side. This would be a sound strategy except that running away from Barnett means running toward Maggitt, who has eight sacks playing a hybrid end/outside linebacker spot on the other side.
“It helps a lot,” Maggitt told InsideTennessee, “knowing somebody else can get after the quarterback, as well.”
Facing this pick-your-poison situation, rolling to either side represents a real quarterback’s quandary.
“That’s good,” Vol defensive coordinator John Jancek said, grinning broadly. “We want that. Both guys coming off the edge is significant.”
It must be. Heading into Saturday night’s home finale against Missouri the Big Orange has 29 sacks in 10 games, giving the Vols a great chance to double last season’s 12-game total of 18 sacks.
Barnett admits that having Maggitt on the other side is a real plus, noting: “He’s doing a great job. He’s going to hold his end down.”
Following a slow start Barnett is doing a great job, too. He registered just one sack in the first six games but has recorded eight in the past four games – three at Ole Miss, none versus Alabama, three at South Carolina and two against Kentucky last Saturday.
“I think I’m improving on pass rush,” Barnett said in a near-comical understatement. “At the beginning of the season I struggled with that, so I think I’m getting better at that. Every week I make mistakes but I learn from them because the guys are helping me out.”
Asked about the recent uptick in his sack production, he replied: “I’m just having fun playing football. In the beginning I was more nervous, still getting a feel for college football.”
Defensive tackle Jordan Williams is amazed by Barnett but also by Maggitt, who missed the entire 2013 season due to a rash of injuries.
“Derek Barnett came out of nowhere, and he’s doing great things…. He keeps getting better every week, and he’s going to be real special,” Williams said. “Plus we’ve got Curt back, and he’s doing great things.”
“Guys up front like Jordan and OB (O’Brien) are doing the dirty work,” Maggitt said, “so me and Barnett and Vereen are just feeding off each other.”
Barnett seconded that comment, noting: “The guys in the middle don’t get enough love. They do the dirty work – facing the double teams and pushing the quarterback to the outside so we (ends) can get some easy sacks. I credit a bunch to those guys.”
Jancek goes a step further, noting that all of Tennessee’s defenders are helping put opposing quarterbacks on their butts this fall.
“I think they all feed off each other,” the coordinator said. “That’s one of the unique things we have going for us … our team chemistry. I think the guys genuinely care for each other. They want to do their jobs and not let one another down. There’s a tremendous pride in doing so.”
With little depth at defensive end, Barnett, Maggitt and Vereen basically comprise a three-man rotation that is working exceptionally well. Each provides some speed off the edge.
“They’re all able to play each side,” Stripling said, “so it’s nice to develop some edge presence out there.”
No doubt. Stripling developed a reputation for producing great pass rushers during stints at Michigan (Lombardi Award winner LaMarr Woodley), at Louisville (Conference USA defensive player of the year DeWayne White) and at Cincinnati (Big East co-defensive player of the year Derek Wolfe). Stripling’s 2011 D-line helped the Bearcats rank second nationally with 3.46 sacks per game.
Saddled with a group of slow-footed linemen in Year 1 at Tennessee, however, Stripling’s sack knack vanished last season. As 29 sacks suggest, it clearly is back this season.
“I don't know if it's exceeded (expectations),” head coach Butch Jones said. “We're much more athletic up front, so we thought that would give us an opportunity to be able to impact the quarterback a little bit more.”
Jordan Williams believes the dramatic rise in sacks is as much mental as it is physical.
“I think it’s just a whole mindset – getting after it, take-offs,” he told InsideTennessee. “We’re more aggressive.”
Stripling believes a combination of factors is at work.
“It’s guys’ second year in the system,” the Vol aide said. “Their football intelligence is improving – knowing where the back is and which way the protection is turning. And I think we’ve done a better job this year of studying the ticks – the little habits of offensive linemen. Last year we were just trying to get the defense in. This year we’ve been able to focus more on details.”
Having Derek Barnett on one flank and Curt Maggitt on the other probably helps a little bit, too.