By Brian Rice KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
By Brian Rice
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.- On a team with as many young players as Tennessee, consistent standout performances in camp are generally a rarity. But when one comes along, it stands out even more.
Such has been the case for freshman defensive lineman Derek Barnett, a player that has drawn praise at every turn from coaches and, perhaps most importantly with Butch Jones "player-led" philosophy, his teammates.
"It's great to see when a younger player earns the respect of his peers," Jones said. "Now, he has to continue to earn that respect, he's not arrived. He's not game-ready yet, but his ability to make plays, his overall effort and his demeanor have been great to see."
One of the teammates that he has impressed is fellow defensive lineman Jordan Williams.
"I could tell from the summer he had the physical aspect, and he definitely had speed," said Williams. "It's just a lot of times D-Linemen have trouble just with the mental aspect of the game. He's picked it up real well. He's coming along great."
Barnett credits the same teammates that have complimented his performance for helping him raise his game to their standard.
"The older guys have helped me out," Barnett said. "They encourage me to be better. I've had a bunch of older guys like Jordan, Curt (Maggitt) and A.J. (Johnson) lead me in the right direction. If I mess up, they tell me what to do right and I can correct it."
Barnett was one of four freshmen to have the black helmet stripe that denotes first-year players in training camp removed at a team meeting prior to practice Monday morning. The stripe is removed when the player staff, particularly the player's "big brother," determines that he meets the standard set by Jones.
"It was good, all the upperclassmen were all happy for me, smiled for me," Barnett said when asked to describe the moment. "It makes me feel good that I can help this team out."
Jones has complimented his freshman on more than one occasion during post practice media sessions and was particularly excited about his performance in the team's first scrimmage Saturday night. His consistency is what sticks out most to Jones because it's the one thing he has looked for most from his entire football team.
"There's a lot of things that go into it," Jones said. "First of all, his maturity as a freshman. It's his work ethic, his mental approach, his consistency in performance each and every day, not just on the field, but in the classroom."
Jones isn't alone on the coaching staff in heaping praise on the Nashville native.
"The boy wonder has a long ways to go, but he is really progressing," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said, using the nickname that has stuck with Barnett. "He's physical. I think he is playing with some maturity right now. He's a freshman. Obviously he is making mistakes but he showed the physicalness and maturity that is uncommon in a freshmen."
Defensive coordinator John Jancek agrees.
"Derek is a tremendous talent, Jancek said. "He's strong, he's quick, he can change direction and is in great shape, in great physical condition. I think that's to the credit of our great strength and conditioning staff and also to Derek. But you can throw a lot at Derek. He's a guy that can pick it all up and have it make sense. He's doing a great job."
For all the rave reviews, it's fair to wonder if the performance was what Barnett expected himself, particularity since he didn't have the benefit of spring practice as many of his fellow freshmen did.
"My expectations were to play hard and do my role and not worry about anything else," Barnett said. "Just play my role."
He played the role for the first time in Neyland Stadium in Saturday night's scrimmage. It was the first of many times he'll play there, but he said he never sees being on that field getting old.
"It was exciting to walk into the stadium," he said. "It gets bigger and bigger every time. Even though there was nobody in the stadium, I still had a smile on my face."