Derek Barnett refused to get off the field Tuesday when the defensive line tried to rotate units. It wasn't an act of defiancy as much as it was a signal to the rest of the guys on the team — the mentality he played with down the stretch last season is back.
"We kind of have a pre-set rotation in practice, and he wouldn't let them take him out of the game," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. "I think he's feeling good. He's getting back to that point where he's anxious to keep competing and those kind of things."
The sophomore flexed the edge he's regained in recent weeks after starting the season off slower than he would have liked. Barnett recorded just one sack in the first five games before notching five in his next four matchups to become the sack leader on the team. Stripling sees a player pushing through being banged up to play his best football as the season gets close to wrapping up.
"I think he's getting healthier and getting that edge back. These next three weeks are critical," Stripling said. "It's good to see Derek back. He's got some of his personality back too, if that makes sense. He's a little edgier too, so it's good to see him back to where he's supposed to be."
Barnett struggled without fellow pass rusher Curt Maggitt, who suffered a bone chip in his hip against Oklahoma and has missed every game since. But the preseason All-SEC player is getting healthier and becoming the menace he was last season when he led the team with six sacks.
"He just has not been totally healthy yet, so he's fighting through that," Stripling said. "When he gets back to full speed, we'll be excited."
Attrition on the O-Line
The offensive line may be the most versatile unit on the team due to the amount of injuries that have stacked up on that side of the ball for the Vols this season. Tennessee lost starting left guard Marcus Jackson before the season and, since then, four offensive linemen have missed at least some game time due to injury. Right tackle Brett Kendrick was back at practice Tuesday, adding much-needed depth, but he and the rest of the unit are still battling an unprecedented amount of injuries this season.
"You're just get to this point in the year where you have your limitations on the total number of guys you're carrying," offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. "It forces you to work different guys in spots strategically through the week. I've never been through this to the extent that we're at right now, where, again, I kind of have a plan in place. In the end, there can't be a point where we run out of guys."
The entire O-line has shuffled positions all year as it battles the injury front, and Mahoney has come up with a practice system that utilizes that versatility and scarcity on across the board.
"Today we stayed with a pretty steady pattern of the guys staying at some spots and still being selective, because there's guys that still have the wear and tear of some of the injuries they're going through," Mahoney said. "Tomorrow is guys playing other spots besides the one that they're really focusing in on ... It's good and healthy for the group to have more things to think about positionally, because once you get to a point in the season where a Tuesday practice, a Wednesday practice, the protection, the run scheme, it kind of all comes together, lumps together, and at least it keeps their attention."
Secondary Settling In
Evan Berry isn't just the NCAA's best kick returner. The sophomore who leads the country in kickoff return yards per game () saw extensive action at safety last week after starter Brian Randolph was ejected in the first quarter for targeting and turned in a performance that impressed his defensive coordiantor.
"Evan went in there and did a good job, got us out of the ballgame," John Jancek said. "He did some good things and helped us win."
Randolph's absence also enhanced the microscope on cornerback Justin Martin, who lost a lot of his help over the top with Randolph gone. Martin ended the game with one tackle and two pass breakups in Tennessee's 27-24 win over South Carolina.
"Justin did fine," Jancek said. "Obviously, there are always a couple of things here and there, but by and large I was pleased with the way Justin played. He's a competitor."