By Chip Cirillo
One teammate says it’s his motor.
His high school coach says it’s the way he bends.
Whatever the reason, Derek Barnett will go down as one of the best, if not the best, pass rushers in Tennessee history.
The former Brentwood Academy star will end his junior season and possibly his UT career at Nissan Stadium against Nebraska in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Friday.
Barnett tied Reggie White as the Volunteers’ career sack leader with his 32nd during a 45-34 loss at Vanderbilt on Nov. 26.
A month later, the 6-foot-3, 265-pound defensive end is back in Nashville trying to break the record and exit with a win.
“He has a motor, he’s relentless, he doesn’t stop, he doesn’t get tired, he’s tough – all these things,” Tennessee defensive tackle Kendal Vickers said. “I can keep rambling on, but he’s a guy that comes in, gets his work done and he expects the best out of you. And that’s why I love playing next to him.”
Barnett led the Southeastern Conference with a career-high 12 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss this season. He recorded 10 sacks during both his freshman and sophomore years.
Success not a surprise to high school coaches
Barnett also terrorized quarterbacks in high school at Brentwood Academy, where he was a two-time Division II-AA Mr. Football.
“He just has that intangible thing or gift of being able to bend, and what I mean is he can run a circle low to the ground and plays with great tenacity,” BA coach Cody White said. “And of course, he’s a really good athlete so you put that with a desire to be great I think it’s something special, which he certainly is.”
A back injury plagued Barnett’s senior year at BA, so White didn’t get to see his full potential until he regained his health at Tennessee.
Barnett was also a talented tight end at BA, where he showed his toughness one last time during his final game with the Eagles during a 21-12 loss at Ensworth in the DII-AA semifinals.
“He broke his hand in the first series and he wouldn’t let himself come out,” White said. “He played the whole game with a broken hand. He wasn’t nearly what he could have been, but it was just the toughness that he showed and the competitiveness he showed was a good example of what he is.”
Barnett continued to display his toughness at Tennessee, where he was a consensus All-American this season.
He became the first Associated Press first-team All-American at UT since Eric Berry in 2009.
Barnett was the only Vol on the AP’s three All-America teams.
“He’s the complete package,” Vols coach Butch Jones said. “He’s very competitive, he works his craft every single day: film study, on the field. All about preparation.”
Barnett said he hasn’t made his final decision on entering the NFL Draft early, but he’s a likely first-rounder if he does.
Pro Football Focus’ early mock draft has him going third to Jacksonville and CBS Sports puts him at 23rd to Green Bay. Moving to outside linebacker is a possibility in the NFL.
Running backs Christian McCaffrey of Stanford and Leonard Fournette of LSU are skipping their teams’ bowl games to focus on the draft, but Barnett said he never considered doing the same.
“No, I wouldn’t skip the game because not a lot of people get to play football, especially at this level,” Barnett said. “I know they probably don’t want to get hurt, but I thank God because I’m playing for everything. I’m from Tennessee, so it would be disrespectful not to play.”
Barnett has two forced fumbles, one interception, 12 quarterback hurries and three pass breakups this season, but sacks are what makes him stand out.
“Relentless is the main one,” Barnett said when asked about his pass-rushing skills. “It’s not stopping or giving up and just playing hard, and just wearing an opponent down.”
Tennessee practiced at Montgomery Bell Academy, one of BA’s biggest rivals, on Tuesday.
“They got us my senior year, but we got them the three years before that so we still talk about that game every once in a while,” Barnett said. “But it’s just crazy how high school games still stick with me.”
Tennessee guard Jashon Robertson played at MBA.
“I felt a little odd when I got off the bus, just seeing this red because I’m a BA boy,” Barnett said. “But it’s good to come back home and practice here, just get back in my hometown. Jashon said he misses MBA. When I got off the bus, everybody kept asking me, ‘Did I go here?’ I’m like, ‘No, I did not go here.’ ”
Barnett has been double-teamed much of the year and he was triple-teamed in a 49-36 win over Kentucky on Nov. 12.
“You’ve got to keep grinding,” Barnett said. “If I get 40 pass rushes a game, all it takes is one. You’ve got to keep working and pushing because our motto says they’re going to get tired before I do.”
Derek Barnett catches Nebraska’s attention
Nebraska coach Mike Riley noticed Barnett immediately when he began preparing for Tennessee.
“When we first turned on the video of the Tennessee team, he was not hard to pick out,” Riley said. “I would say he is one of those guys that would always be in the conversation as the best we’ve seen. Now, it might be three guys like that, but it doesn’t matter. When you get into that kind of conversation, you’re talking about a really good player.
“I think that probably one of the keys to our game will be being able to handle Tennessee’s whole front and be able to block so that we can run the ball effectively and then be able to pass protect, so I think that the best way to try to do that is to be balanced.”
Containing Barnett will be one of the top priorities for Cornhuskers offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, whose unit ranks sixth nationally in sacks allowed (11).
“He is a disruptive force up front in the run and pass game,” Langsdorf said. “He’s a physical player. He’s got good pass-rush moves, the ability to disrupt a lot of plays. He’s going to be a force, so we’ve got to sure and take care of him.”
Nebraska left tackle Nick Gates (6-5, 290, soph.) will spend most of the day trying to keep Barnett out of the Cornhuskers’ backfield.
“He’s a good player, you know All-American,” Gates said. “He’s just athletic, a real fast guy, a real powerful guy. It’s a big opportunity for me to show what attributes and things I’ve got going for me. I’m excited to go against a player like that.”
Barnett reminds Gates of Shilique Calhoun, a three-time All-American at Michigan State who is now an injured rookie for the Oakland Raiders.
“(Calhoun) has the edge, speed-wise, but Barnett definitely has a lot more power to him,” Gates said. “Calhoun was a skinnier kind of guy, a long-arm, speed guy.”
Gates also compared Barnett to Dallas defensive end Randy Gregory, a former Nebraska star.
“I just can’t lean and I’ve got to use my hands real well,” Gates said. “I’ve always got to be sitting and not be out of position because he’ll take that one time and definitely take advantage of it. That’s what All-Americans do.”
Nebraska’s Ryker Fyfe will make his third career start in place of injured quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. (torn hamstring), the Cornhuskers’ career passing leader (8,871 yards).
The last thing the senior needs is a big day by Barnett.
“Yeah, hopefully, they block him,” Fyfe deadpanned. “He’s a good player. I’ll be ready to go.”
Everybody will need to help out to contain the Vols’ talented pass rusher.
“Ány chip help by tight ends or running backs is always helpful,” Nebraska center Dylan Utter said. “Just staying with our technique and not hyping up the (defensive) end too much just because of who he is. It’s all about what we do and those tackles will be relaxed and ready to go.”
So will Barnett, who was eager for the kickoff back on Tuesday.
“I want to play right now just because I have a bad feeling in my mouth from the last game,” he said referring to the Vanderbilt loss. “If we could, I would play right now.”