Derek Barnett still chasing Tennessee Vols' top spot in sacks

Derek Barnett still chasing Tennessee Vols' top spot in sacks

December 22nd, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee freshman defensive end Derek Barnett, left, and Curt Magitt have combined for 21 of the Vols sacks this season.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE Derek Barnett knows he currently trails Tennessee teammate Curt Maggitt for the team lead in sacks.

The freshman defensive end also knows there's one more game and another opportunity to grab that distinction.

Maggitt (11 sacks) and Barnett (10) combined for more than half of the Volunteers' 35 sacks this season, and the two developed a little bit of a competition about who has the most during the course of the season that culminates with the Jan. 2 TaxSlayer Bowl meeting with Iowa in Jacksonville

"He ain't been giving me much of a hard time," Barnett said with a smile after Tennessee finished practicing at Neyland Stadium on Sunday afternoon. "Maybe after the Vandy game he was laughing at me a little bit. I'm going to catch him, so I ain't worried about it."

The duo of Maggitt and Barnett certainly did that, as Tennessee recorded its highest sack total for a season since the 2001 team, which included defensive tackles John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth, had 34.

Only 11 SEC players in the past five seasons reached double-digit sacks, and the Vols had two of the four to record 10 or more in the conference this season, with Missouri's Shane Ray and Texas A&M freshman Myles Garrett the other two.

"Some of their sacks are what I call 'opportunity sacks,'" Vols coach Butch Jones said, "where the interior defensive front has done their great job and generated a push up the middle, and now the quarterback flushes the pocket and they're able to get that sack.

"A lot of times, even though sacks are individual statistics, they're really team statistics as well in terms of the secondary, the linebackers, but also the whole entire defensive front."

Barnett's matchup with Iowa left tackle Brandon Scherff, the Outland Trophy winner and a likely first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, is one of the most appealing of the bowl game between the Vols and Hawkeyes.

"It's a great opportunity, but also a great challenge," Jones said. "He's going against an individual who's going to be a first-round NFL draft pick, has played in a lot of football games, has maturity, has the strength and conditioning element in a full-time college football program for a number of years. This will be his biggest challenge to date."

It's also one for which the competitive Barnett says he'll be ready.

"It's just another chance to play football for me," he said. "Every guy I play is good. Everybody's on scholarship I play against, so I have to bring my A-game every game. I think I'll do fine if I do what the coaches have taught me to do."

Wharton's wait

Way back in August, Vic Wharton was performing well enough in preseason practices that it appeared the freshman receiver would be able to help Tennessee right away.

Then he missed a chunk of time with an injury, and it stunted his development.

"I feel like when I had to sit out, I didn't have time to learn the offense," he said. "I was more in the training room, and now that I've been out here, and the injuries that have happened, it's really caused me to be able to step up and make plays."

The Vols will need Wharton and redshirt freshman Ryan Jenkins to do that with Jason Croom (knee) out for the bowl game. Wharton started against Vanderbilt, but did not have a catch in the regular-season finale after catching four passes -- three against UT Chattanooga in October -- for 15 yards in eight games.

Jenkins's only catch was for 6 yards against Missouri.

"Me and Ryan Jenkins, we're constantly battling," Wharton said. "We're playing the same position, but it's a good battle. We're both really good friends off the field, and we help each other on the field to make sure we know what we're doing. As long we keep doing that, we're making it a good competitive relationship."

Wharton could start against Iowa, but the two figure to get plenty of snaps as the Vols focus on a receiver rotation of Pig Howard, Von Pearson and Josh Malone in addition to the two freshmen.

"They've responded really well," Jones said. "They've had a very, very good bowl preparation. I think they continue to get better and better. I think their confidence has continued to grow. I've been very, very pleased, and I know Coach Z (receivers coach Zach Azzanni) has been pleased.

"They're earning that trust more and more. You can see by their body language, by the way they play the game, they're playing very confident right now."

'Uncharted waters'

That's what Jones said his team has been navigating this month as the Vols prep for the program's first bowl game in four years, and part of the new territory includes some time at home for Christmas break following a final practice this morning.

The Vols will meet back in Knoxville on Dec. 27 and leave for Florida the following day.

Jones has complimented his team's approach in practices this month and said Sunday the coaches had to back off in practice as the Vols got a little too physical while preparing for a Big Ten opponent.

Both coaches and players will welcome a brief respite and some time to spend with friends and families.

"Our coaching staff," Jones said, "really has not had any time off since we started this journey in August."

Barnett, who said he last went home on Tennessee's first open date back in September, shared the message Jones and his staff gave the players heading into the break.

"Go home and have some good family time with your family," he said, "but also think about football while you're there."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.


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