KNOXVILLE — The message was simple.
Derek Barnett kept his plan of following it that way, too.
In need of immediate contributors on a depleted defensive line, Tennessee's coaching staff told Barnett and the other freshman ends and tackles they would be needed quickly and get early opportunities to play.
"They told me," Barnett said following Monday morning's practice, "to come in with the right mindset, and they told me to just run and run, to be ready for the conditioning."
Through a little more than a week of training camp, Barnett's been ready for it all.
The 6-foot-3, 264-pound defensive end has been one of the stories for the Volunteers this August, and his combination of size, playmaking ability and hustle has drawn praise from coaches and teammates.
His only objectives coming in were to play hard and handle his role.
"It's just the older guys helping me out," said the soft-spoken former four-star recruit. "When I mess up or make a mistake, they encourage me to do better. I just bust my butt to the ball so I won't let my teammates down."
With the Vols managing Curt Maggitt's repetitions this preseason, Barnett is getting plenty of opportunities, and he's quickly risen to the top of the heap among the new defensive linemen and carved out a role for himself.
"There's a lot of things that go into it: first of all his maturity [despite] being a true freshman, his work ethic, his mental approach, his consistency in performance each and every day, not just on the field but in the classroom," coach Butch Jones said. "It's great to see when a younger player earns the respect of his peers. Now he has to continue to earn that respect.
"He has not arrived. He is not game-ready yet, but his ability to make plays, his overall effort and demeanor has been great to see, and our players see that, and that's why they have the respect that they have for him."
Barnett switched his jersey number to No. 9 for his senior season at Brentwood Academy and kept it at Tennessee partly because former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the top pick in May's NFL draft, wore No. 7.
"I chose No. 9," Barnett explained, "because I wanted to choose a different number than Clowney. I wanted to be a role model to younger kids, so maybe they can wear No. 9 one day.
"Single-digit numbers," he added, "look good on D-linemen."
A few months ago, Alton "Pig" Howard was absent from Tennessee's spring practice due to undisclosed personal reasons, and his future with the Vols was very shaky at best.
Yet there the junior was inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday night, making an impressive twisting catch for a touchdown in Tennessee's first preseason scrimmage.
"The past is the past," Howard said. "At the end of the day, I feel we're more closer as a unit, as a team, and we're working to get better each and every day."
He said he appreciated the coaches staying in touch with him throughout his absence. The Vols' receptions leader last season, Howard truly got back on track in May, when he stayed in Knoxville for mini-term classes and rejoined the Vols for workouts.
Jones and the Vols' 13-man player staff worked together to provide Howard with some requirements he had to meet to keep his place, and so far he's done that and gotten off to a solid start this month.
"It starts with him, first and foremost," Jones said. "It's self-accountability, but also it's his teammates of holding him accountable. Some of those player-staff meetings were very, very intense. They laid out a structure; they laid out a plan that he had to adhere to, and they held him accountable."
Earning their stripes
It's a requirement in Jones's program for first-year players to wear thick black stripes on their helmets until they earn the stripes' removal, a decision that's controlled by the Vols' 13-man player staff.
It's a rite of training camp, and Barnett, tailback Jalen Hurd, tight end Ethan Wolf and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley were the first freshmen to have their stripes removed this year.
"When your peers elect to have your stripe taken off," Jones said, "that's a pretty big deal."
Jones said junior college transfer receiver Von Pearson has had a "very quiet but very productive" training camp. ... Tailback Marlin Lane, who was limited in Monday morning's practice, got some looks in the wildcat package in Saturday night's scrimmage. Jones dubbed it the "Vol" package and hinted that "a number of different running backs" would run it. ... Freshman defensive tackle Michael Sawyers is a "work in progress," Jones said. "He's nowhere near game-ready where he needs to be," he added, "but what I like about Michael is he understands where he's at, he's able and he's willing."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...