KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Derek Barnett is a no nonsense stud.
Tennessee’s humble and selfless superstar doesn’t care about accolades, stats or records.
He simply wants to win and he’s peeved about the Volunteers current three-game losing streak.
“I don’t think about the numbers,” the 6-foot-3, 267-pound All-American defensive end said.
“I know we aren’t winning football games right now. That’s frustrating. I’m just trying to win. I feel like if I improve each week then I can help.”
The problem for Barnett, who speaks with a grizzly Southern drawl, is that his numbers are too impressive to ignore.
After another standout performance at South Carolina, the junior is tied for the nation’s lead in sacks with 9. His 14.5 TFLs rank No. 3 in the country. Barnett is just four takedowns away from breaking Tennessee legend Reggie White’s school-record (32 sacks).
Barnett is 5 TFLs away from another Tennessee record and is on pace for his third consecutive double-digit sack season — something never accomplished at Tennessee.
“I was just talking to somebody the other day and said, ‘Man, it’s crazy to play on the opposite side of this dude,” senior defensive end LaTroy Lewis said.
“Sometimes you take it for granted.
“At the end of the day, Derek will end up being one of the greatest defensive linemen to ever play at Tennessee. Or in the SEC. Or in college football period. It’s been an honor and privilege to play on the opposite side of him.”
During a turbulent season, Barnett has gone from alpha dog to Amarok. With so many veterans going down with injures, Barnett is the lone wolf still standing.
Normally a lead-by-example kind of player, Barnett hasn’t shied away from challenging teammates on the practice field this fall. Always looking forward, during the postgame celebration at Georgia, Barnett told coach Butch Jones it was time to get to work on Texas A&M.
“He practices as hard as anyone I’ve been around,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said.
“He’s a savage on the field.”
Despite stuffing the stat sheet each week, Barnett is driven to get better, too.
Multiple times this season, he’s lamented purported flaws in his game, recently saying, “There’s always room for improvement. Last game, I was inconsistent in my get-off on early downs.”
Tennessee would be in a world of hurt this season without it’s terrific pass rusher. Barnett has continued to pile up sacks in SEC play (26 of his 29 career-sacks have come in conference games), single-handily jumpstarting several comebacks with momentum-changing plays early in the year.
He turned in a dynamo performance in the rally against Florida, destroying the Gators in a four-play sequence — sack, pressure, tackle for loss, sack — at the end of the third quarter.
At Georgia, Barnett whipped a tight-end, tailback double-team to strip-sack freshman quarterback Jacob Eason in the end zone. Tennessee’s lone touchdown in the blowout loss to Alabama was also setup by a Barnett forced fumble.
He’s been unblockable all year, delivering one of the greatest defensive seasons in Tennessee history.
“I can’t say enough about Derek Barnett,” Shoop said earlier this season.
“He is the heart and soul (of Tennessee).”
Barnett, along with the recently departed Jalen Hurd, was the crown jewel of Tennessee’s famous 2014 recruiting class. The Nashville native opted to stay in-state and shoulder the responsibility of turning around a tumbling program.
While the prolific pass rusher appears destined to be a first round draft pick and cement his name in the record books at Tennessee, the individual accomplishments mean little to a guy that expected to get to Atlanta this season.
“I didn’t even know I had that many sacks until someone told me,” Barnett said.
“I’m not worried about the numbers. I’m worried about the grind, the process and the score at the end of the game.
“I’m just trying to get better. Each week I play, I try to improve off of it. I know we’re not winning ballgames right now, so that’s frustrating. I’m just trying to win.”