KNOXVILLE —Derek Barnett embraced the grind on Monday, wearing a long sleeve shirt to Tennessee’s opening practice in the sweltering August heat.
“I was very ready for this, (and) it felt good to be back out there,” said Barnett, a 6-foot-3, 265-pound first-team All-SEC defensive end from Nashville.
Barnett’s exhibition of mental toughness was just one example of the leadership UT’s veteran players are showing these days, a phenomenon Coach Butch Jones has referenced more than once leading up to the season.
“This football team has had a workmanlike approach since we walked off that football field in Tampa,” Jones said, referring to the Vols’ 45-6 New Year’s Day win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. “They’re really talking about owning it, and owning everything we do.
“They (upperclassmen) have done a great job of mentoring our freshmen.”
Barnett has quickly gotten behind newcomer Jonathan Kongbo, a junior college transfer expected to have an immediate impact.
“He looks good, still learning a lot of things right now,” Barnett said when asked about the 6-6, 283-pound Kongbo. “He’s going to help us this year, and everyone knows that in the room.
“He’ll be ready when the season comes, but right now he’s a work in progress.”
Barnett, meanwhile, enters the season with 20 career sacks, 12 shy of the school’s all-time mark set by Reggie White.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee for SEC Country and is based in Knoxville.