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Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett tackles Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton during the Vols' season-opener football game against the Aggies at Neyland Stadium in this 2014 file photo.

KNOXVILLE - Derek Barnett surged past his blocker and made a beeline for the quarterback.

The end result was the first sack of the Tennessee freshman defensive end's promising career.

It took Barnett, a four-star recruit, five games to notch the first sack of his collegiate career, as he did in the third quarter of the Volunteers' loss to Florida last week, but his current trajectory suggests more are on the way.

"It felt good to get one," Barnett said with a grin earlier this week. "Now I'm ready to get some more. I'm going to try to get some more this weekend and on into next week as well."

Tennessee's defensive line was a big question mark coming into the 2014 season, and except for letting Georgia's Todd Gurley go off in the fourth quarter a couple of weeks ago, Steve Stripling's group has exceeded those expectations.

The emergence of the 6-foot-3, 267-pound Barnett has been one of the primary reasons why.

Stripling, Tennessee's veteran defensive line coach, has three notable former pupils currently playing in the NFL.

At Michigan, he coached Brandon Graham, who went on to be the 13th overall pick by Philadelphia in the 2010 draft, and LaMarr Woodley, an All-American who was a 2009 Pro Bowler for the Pittsburgh Steelers and now plays for Oakland. Derek Wolfe went from two-star recruit to Denver's second-round draft pick playing for Stripling at Cincinnati.

After Wednesday's practice, Stripling mentioned Barnett in the same breath as a couple of those players.

"His great qualities are he's big and physical enough to do what you ask him to do and he's resilient enough not to get caught up in the highs and lows of the grind of a season," Stripling said. "But beyond that, he has instincts. I don't know how he knows sometimes. He can be totally locked into two guys but know exactly where the ball's at.

"That's instincts. We all talk about it. Some guys have it; some guys don't. Some guys need experience; some guys need 20 reps to figure it out. Derek is just one of those young men that it's instinctive to him. He knows what's going on."

Barnett showed that a couple of times against Florida.

He was disciplined enough to stay home when the Gators ran a first-quarter double reverse and, with the help of cornerback Cam Sutton, stopped that play for a 5-yard loss. Earlier in the game, he peeled off his blocker to stop a tunnel screen to a receiver in its tracks.

"I think I'm getting a better understanding each week, because I mess up throughout the week," Barnett said. "Then Coach Strip gets on me, and the guys, so I learn from that. I think I'm improving every week, and I'm trying to stay consistent with my play."

The freshman leads Tennessee's defensive linemen with 25 tackles -- the fifth-highest on the team -- and is second with five tackles for loss.

Against Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida, Barnett totaled 19 tackles, four for lost yardage.

"Man, Barnett impresses me every day," linebacker/defensive end Curt Maggitt said with a smile. "I always call him my little brother, but he's like my regular brother now. We're like twins or something. That joker, he's smart -- effort-wise, maturity -- you come out here and watch practice and you wouldn't be able to point out him being a freshman.

"I've got a lot of respect for him. I ask him to do something or tell him to do something, he don't second-guess it. He's going to go full speed, so I respect him a lot."

Stripling admitted he "absolutely" forgets sometimes Barnett has not completed the first half of his first college season, but it's been a while since he treated him like a first-year player.

"All players have a button," Stripling said. "Some guys, you've got to get into them. Some guys, you have to encourage, whatever. He's the same: You just tell him. It's not going to help to yell at him. You just tell him what you want to get done. That's the best way to approach him."

Asked if he was playing better than he expected to so early in his career, Barnett was blunt.

"No, I'm not," he replied. "I have a high expectation for myself, and my teammates do as well for me. I try to play my best ball every time I step on the field.

"I'm still making a lot of mistakes. I'm not playing as well as I need to be. I'm leaving a few sacks on the field, and that's a bad feeling for me. I don't like to do that. I've just got to keep running to the ball every play and do my right assignments."

That kind of attitude bodes well for Barnett reaching his ceiling in the future.

"He can be as good as he wants to be, because he has all those qualities," Stripling said. "Now it's progressing to the real development of his skill set and the development of his F-B-I [football intelligence] to take it to the next level.

"Derek Wolfe, I had him his second, third and fourth year. Second year, he was just a wild stallion. Fourth year, he knew every play, when it was happening -- before the snap. That's what Barnett's got to do. He's got to get to that point."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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