KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Bob Shoop had a pretty good idea Tennessee’s defense could become a championship unit or he would not have left Penn State to take over coordinator duties after last season.
Shoop recently said he really knew he had something special after meeting with the defensive players for the first time back in January.
“I told the players my door is open to any of them at any time,” Shoop said, “and then I went and talked to Coach (Butch) Jones and told him I thought it went really well.”
Shoop’s next stop that day was his office, where he found defensive end Derek Barnett waiting for him.
“He said ‘Coach, this has to be the year, we’ll do whatever we’ve got to do,’ ” Shoop said. “That was special.”
Shoop knows better than anyone that the best defenses have ringleaders, and Barnett is the fiercest of several leaders on the Tennessee defense.
“He practices as hard as anybody I’ve been around in a long, long time,” Shoop said. “He has an intensity to him. He’s a savage when he’s out on the field.”
Barnett, a 6-foot-3, 265-pound force from Brentwood Academy just outside of Nashville, said he’s just doing what needs to be done.
“In the weight room, on the field, I’m going hard, just mental,” Barnett said. “I’ve improved my vocal skills and leadership because I feel like if I do that, we’ll take the next step as a team.”
Barnett had the privilege of getting one-on-one advice from the greatest leader in UT football’s modern-day history, linebacker Al Wilson.
“I talked to him during the offseason, and he told me guys would look up to me, and I have to bring the guys along,” Barnett said. “He said don’t be afraid to voice your opinion, and if someone’s doing something they shouldn’t be doing, tell them.”
Shoop has noticed Barnett’s leadership kick in.
“When Derek says jump, they say ‘how high?’ “ Shoop said. “He’s the Al Wilson on our defense.”
The Vols have leadership on all three levels, with captain Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland commanding from the linebacker corps, and Cam Sutton and Todd Kelly Jr. in front of the secondary.
Barnett is Shoop’s lead guard dog.
“We talk about fighting for blades of grass,” Jones said when Shoop was hired. “When you play a Bob Shoop defense, you’re fighting for blades of grass on every single snap.”
And that means getting through Barnett and the Tennessee defensive line.
“He’s a fiery competitor,” Kirkland said, nodding in the direction of Barnett. “He’s 110 percent, full speed, all the time. He’s a guy you love to have in your locker room and a good friend overall.”
And, Barnett explained, he’s a proud Tennessean.
“This is year three for me, and my whole class came in together and we said we were going to change the program,” Barnett said, reflecting on the Vols’ 2014 signing class.
“I’m from Tennessee, and you saw a lot of guys stayed home in the state in my recruiting class. We got a lot of ballers from this state, and now everyone will see how good we can be.”
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s SEC Country and is based in Knoxville.