UT Vols defensive end Derek Barnett 'all right' in debut, wants to 'step it up'

photo Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett tackles Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton as he carries the ball during the Vols' season-opener football game against the Aggies on Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

KNOXVILLE - His debut out of the way, Derek Barnett now might as well be a veteran.

The Tennessee freshman defensive end believes it's time he plays like one, at least.

After becoming Sunday the first true freshman to start a season opener on the defensive line for the Volunteers in the history of the program, Barnett already was thinking ahead to the next step in his development.

"I feel good I got that first game out of the way," the Nashville resident said after Tuesday's practice. "I'm not going to be as nervous as I was. Now I feel like I need to play even better than I did Sunday.

"I played all right, but I need to step it up a notch now."

Tennessee's new-look defensive line was surprisingly effective in hemming in Chuckie Keeton, Utah State's dual-threat quarterback, and limiting the Aggies' ground game. Tennessee allowed Keeton to run for only 12 yards, and Utah State managed just 100 rushing yards. Most of that came on JoJo Naton's 38-yard run in the fourth quarter with the Vols up 31-0.

Barnett finished his debut with three tackles and one quarterback hurry, and he combined with Jordan Williams to stuff Utah State's tailback in the backfield on a fourth-and-1 play early in the second quarter.

"I played all right," Barnett said. "I had a few tackles, but I need to get better. On play-action passes, I need to get off my blocks more and keep running to the ball better.

"I prepared well for Sunday, and the upperclassmen helped me. We're still working and watching film every day."

Different challenge

Tennessee cornerback Justin Coleman said he thought Keeton was "a little bit afraid" to run the ball just 11 months removed from suffering a serious knee injury.

That won't be the case for the Vols against Arkansas State and quarterback Fredi Knighten on Saturday. The Red Wolves operates an offense with more designed quarterback runs and a faster tempo than Utah State.

"They'll get through the play, and they'll line up as fast as possible," Coleman said, "just to try to get anxiety into you and see if you'll mess up."

Safety shuffle

One of the more surprising developments from Tennessee's opener was LaDarrell McNeil earning the starting nod at safety over sophomore Devaun Swafford and freshman Todd Kelly.

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound junior from Dallas started for a 20th consecutive time after getting very few, if any, first-team repetitions during the open viewing periods of training camp. Though he finished fourth on the team with 54 tackles in 2013, McNeil continually struggled with his open-field tackling last season.

Coach Butch Jones said Tuesday that McNeil's preseason consistency and overall experience paved the way for him to start and play most of the game. Kelly and Swafford both got extended action, and it may not take long for one of those two, particularly the talented freshman, to break through into the starting group.

"We'll continue to evaluate our secondary," Jones said. "The [three] individuals will continue to compete week in and week out, and that'll ever be evolving as this football team continues to evolve. LaDarrell McNeil has had a very, very good training camp."

Punting problems?

As he did after Sunday night's win, Jones reiterated Tuesday that punter Matt Darr is "fine" after the senior badly rolled his ankle when his plant leg was hit by a defender late in the fourth quarter.

Darr was not on the practice field during the open viewing period of Tuesday's practice later that afternoon, though, and walk-ons Troy Waites, Ryan Ault and Trevor Daniel got most of the work.

Waites is a left-footer Tennessee added this offseason as a preferred walk-on, redshirt sophomore Ault handled all kicking duties at Brentwood High School and Daniel is a redshirt freshman out of Dickson County High School.

Darr hit his first punt of the season for 53 yards, pinned Utah State inside the 20-yard line four times and finished the opener with a 37.3-yard average on eight punts

Tennessee tidbits

Freshman defensive back Rashaan Gaulden, who made a tackle in kickoff coverage against Utah State, missed Tuesday's practice and had a cast covering his right wrist and forearm. ... Defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry (knee) remains out, and receiver Johnathon Johnson (ankle) continues to be limited after missing the opener. ... Jones said he's being told Saturday's game is "close to a sellout." ... Jones was most unpleased with Tennessee's special teams Sunday and called them "exceptionally disappointing," particularly operation times on punts and field goals, punt coverage, ball placement on kickoffs and blocking on kickoff returns.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.