NASHVILLE — There's one penalty Tennessee may be willing to commit in Friday's Music City Bowl against Nebraska.
When All-America defensive end Derek Barnett tied Reggie White's program record for career sacks in the regular-season finale at Vanderbilt, the Volunteers collectively swarmed him with congratulations.facebook
Because it happened on the final play of the first half, there was no celebration flag as some players spilled off the sideline onto the field to greet No. 9 after his tying sack.
"We'll probably do the same thing," defensive tackle Kendal Vickers said Tuesday afternoon following Tennessee's practice at Montgomery Bell Academy. "I hope we don't get a 15-yard penalty. That's not what we play for and all that, but it would be awesome if he does it.
"It would be hard (not to get a penalty). I'm not going to lie, it would be hard. I think the coaches would understand. They'd be in the coach mode, but after it I think they would understand."
The bowl game in his hometown almost certainly will be Barnett's final game for the Vols. The only player in SEC history with three straight seasons with double-digits sacks is projected to be a first-round NFL draft pick. Barnett insists he hasn't made his decision, but with such a lofty draft stock there isn't really one for him to make.
LSU's Leonard Fournette and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, a pair of projected first-round running backs, have elected not to play in their team's bowl games, but Barnett isn't taking that route.
"I didn't give it no thought," he said. "I'm from Tennessee. I mean, it would be disrespectful not to play."
Barnett smiled as he again indicated he hadn't made a decision about forgoing his final season at Tennessee to go to the NFL, but he made it clear he isn't skipping Friday's game.
"I wouldn't skip a game," he said. "Not a lot of people get to play football, especially at this level. I know they probably don't want to get hurt and stuff, but I think God's got a plan for everything, so I wouldn't skip a game. I'd play."
Such an attitude and approach have earned Barnett a clear level of respect from his teammates and helped him become a team leader and one of the faces of Tennessee's program.
"That's his personality," Vickers said. "He doesn't care about all the accolades and stuff he gets. He just wants to play football and he just wants to win, and everything will take care of itself, especially for him. The guys that have been sitting out, that's on them. That's their personal choice, and I don't disagree or agree with it.
"That's just what they think is best for them and that's great, but what's best for Barnett, he thinks, is to play in this game."
Vickers still marvels at Barnett's motor and relentlessness, but what he enjoys the most about playing with Barnett is how demanding he is of those around him.
All of those attributes were evident the first day Barnett stepped on campus in 2014.
"I think everybody would be lying if they said he'd be Reggie White good," Vickers said. "I thought when he first got here, he had a motor and he came in in shape. That was the first thing, I was like, 'This dude's going to be able to play just because he's in shape more than anybody else is.' Once we saw him play on the field, we're like, 'This dude's the real deal.'
"We didn't think he'd be Reggie White, but we're glad he was able to do the things he's accomplished here."
Barnett's final individual accomplishment with the Vols would be breaking White's record, about which he's grown tired of answering questions as he's closed in on it during his junior season.
"It'd mean a lot," Barnett said, "but when I step on the field I'm trying to do everything I can to be dominant and anything I can do to help (us) win. If I get a few sacks, that'd be great. If not and I just affect the quarterback, I'd be good, too."
Though Barnett has downplayed breaking the record, his teammates fervently want him to do it and hope to celebrate the milestone moment against Nebraska.
"Of course it means a lot to him," Vickers said. "He's probably lying to y'all. It's important to him, but I think it's a little bit more important to us, because we know how hard he works and we know how dedicated he has been to the game for us since he's been here. I'd love to see that."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.