Best bookends in Vols history?

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Curt Maggitt recorded 11 sacks last fall, so opposing passers will be inclined to roll away from right end this fall … until they realize that rolling away from Maggitt means rolling toward left end Derek Barnett, who recorded 10 sacks as a freshman last fall.

Pick your poison.

Maggitt, a 6-foot-3, 251-pound senior, and Barnett, a 6-foot-3, 267-pound sophomore, may not be the best pair of bookends in Tennessee history but they’re in elite company on the short list for that honor.

For instance, both Doug Atkins and Mack Franklin earned first-team All-SEC recognition at end in 1952. Also tabbed All-America that season, Atkins went on to earn induction into both the college and pro football halls of fame. Some observers consider him the greatest defensive lineman ever to play the game.

Tennessee paired a couple of celebrated junior-college transfers at end in 1991 – first-team All-SEC selections Chuck Smith and Chris Mims. Smith went on to be a second-round NFL Draft pick who played 10 years in The League. Mims, a first-round pick, spent nine years in the NFL.

The next great defensive end duo at Tennessee paired up in 1997, when both Leonard Little and Jonathan Brown earned first-team All-SEC recognition. Little also claimed first-team All-America honors that fall. Both were third-round NFL Draft picks, with Little playing 12 NFL seasons, Brown four.

Heading into the 2015 season Maggitt and Barnett project to wreak the same kind of havoc that predecessors Atkins/Franklin, Smith/Mims and Little/Brown did in previous decades.

“They’re definitely a dynamic duo,” said Vol quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who faces them in practice each day.

The word “duo” is the key. Having a star on each flank is a real plus.

“It’s very helpful,” head coach Butch Jones told InsideTennessee. “Part of playing great defense is being able to contain the quarterback, especially in the red zone. When you have a guy on each side that can put an edge on the defense, that helps.”

Still, the impact Maggitt and Barnett have in 2015 will be somewhat dependent on the pass rush mustered by Tennessee’s tackles.

“Where we have to continue to improve is to be able to get an interior push,” Jones said. “If you have an interior individual that demands double-teams that frees up a lot of one-on-ones (for the ends) where the opponent can’t chip with a tight end or a running back.”

Maggitt conceded that it’s “great” having Barnett on the other side, then added: “But it’s not just Derek. We’ve got some good guys on the inside – (Danny) O’Brien, (Shy) Tuttle, (Kendal) Vickers. We’ve got some guys that are going to help us out a lot this coming season – (Dimarya) Mixon, (Corey) Vereen, just to name a few.”

Another tackle who could impact the pass rush is heralded freshman Kahlil McKenzie, rated the Class of 2015’s No. 1 prospect by Scout. The 6-foot-3, 327-pounder made his presence felt in Tuesday’s opening workout of fall camp.

“I seen a whole lot of want-to,” Maggitt said. “He gave good effort, and showed a lot of want-to to learn.”

If the tackles can muster enough push to keep opposing passers from stepping up into the pocket, Maggitt and Barnett could give Tennessee its best pass rush in a long, long time.

Fifth-year senior Curt Maggitt looks to build off a double-digit sack season in 2014.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)

“We have some big goals … not just Derek and me but the whole D-line,” Maggitt said. “We’re going to push each other, hold each other accountable…. He’s a great football player; everybody knows that. I just love playing with him, really.”

Likewise, Barnett loves playing opposite Maggitt, who edged him out by one sack last fall. Barnett seeks revenge this fall.

“We always compete,” Barnett said. “He always says he’s going to beat me out, and I always try to beat him out, as well. At the end of the day, we’re just trying to win ball games. If we get sacks to help the team, that’s good.”

The fact Barnett climbed from fourth-team on the depth chart to start 10 of 13 games last fall surprised a lot of people. Did it surprise him?

“No,” he said, looking around as if to say, “Next question?”

Barnett is convinced he’ll be much better in 2015, based on the progress he made the second half of 2014.

“I learned more pass-rush moves and I understand what tackles are going to do now,” he told InsideTennessee. “I can read what they’re going to do before the play starts…. I understand the game better – the schemes and everything.”

Barnett missed spring practice due to a shoulder injury but says the time was not wasted, thanks to some goading by defensive line coach Steve Stripling.

“Coach Strip was on me during the offseason,” Barnett said. “Guys like OB (O’Brien) and Curt were telling me I needed to improve my game mentally during the offseason, and that’s what I did.”

With a full season of college ball under his belt, Barnett can’t wait to get started in 2015.

“I’m a lot more confident,” he said. “I’m not nervous no more. Last year I was kind of getting a feel for it each game. This year I just feel like I know what to do now.”

As well as he played in 2014, Barnett says he is far from satisfied.

“I missed a bunch of sacks,” he said. “I can get better with my hands and pass-rush moves. I’ve gotten stronger since my shoulder injury, so I feel like I’ve improved there, too.”

If Barnett is improved, he and Maggitt just might prove to be the most dynamic pair of bookends in Tennessee history this fall. Even so, there’s one quarterback they won’t sack this season. Teammate Dobbs wears a red jersey in practice, restricting him from being tackled.

“I tell them if I was live I don’t think they would sack me,” Dobbs said.

Informed of the comment, Maggitt laughed.

“He knows he’s No. 1,” Maggitt said, “so we can’t touch him.”

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