Tennessee’s Derek Barnett will be the nation’s next breakout star

World, get ready to meet Tennessee's Derek Barnett in the fall of 2015.

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Great football players are seldom defined by any physical testing numbers. Still, eye-catching 40 times or vertical-jump measurements often help turn a four-star recruit into a five-star guy. Last summer when freshman Derek Barnett arrived in Knoxville, he came to Tennessee as a blue-chip prospect, but was hardly one of the more hyped recruits in UT’s class, much less in the SEC’s freshman crop.

Vols coach Butch Jones thought Barnett had a chance to be an impact guy for his rebuilding program, but admits he didn’t realize quite what he had until about UT’s second week of fall practice last August. The Vols were in a "thud" situation during one of their practice periods when Jalen Hurd, their five-star freshman running back, broke out of a cluster around the line of scrimmage and took off down the right sidelines. Jones and the rest of his staff were stunned when they spotted Barnett, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound blur fly in from the opposite side of the field to blast Hurd.

"OK, this kid could be pretty special," Jones thought. The more he observed Barnett, the more amazed he was by Barnett’s motor. "It’s unreal," Jones says. Of course, the coach never would’ve imagined that Barnett would proceed to set the Vols record for most sacks (10) and tackles for loss (20.5) in a season by a freshman or that the kid would lead the entire SEC in TFLs (18) in league play.

This from a guy who by his own admission probably ran a 4.8-4.9 (40) in high school and vertical jumped around 30 inches. "I don’t think combines are really for football," Barnett said. "It’s when you put the pads on is when you can really tell how good someone is.

"Hustling to the football has always been my thing. I just don’t want anybody to outwork me because I feel like even if I make a mistake, if I’m hustling to the ball, I can make up for it. I take a lot of pride in my conditioning. In the fourth quarter that’s when you can make some big plays, because those O-linemen are bigger guys and they get tired. Everybody plays hard at the beginning of the game."

Steve Stripling, UT’s veteran D-line coach, said Barnett reminds him a little of one of his star players back at Michigan, LaMarr Woodley. "Derek is very physically mature and has more innate strength than just weight-room strength."

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Barnett’s record-setting season is even more impressive when you consider that he went up against two offensive tackles who were first-round NFL picks (Iowa’s Brandon Scherff and Florida’s D.J. Humphries), a sixth-rounder (Oklahoma’s Tyrus Thompson) and a seventh-rounder (South Carolina’s Corey Robinson), as well as two guys who many expect will become first-rounders in future drafts — Alabama’s Cam Robinson and Ole Miss’ Laremy Tunsil. In those six games, he had 11.5 TFLs and six sacks.

Barnett’s first big test of his college career came in Week 3 at Oklahoma. Just two months after he turned 18, Barnett was lined up across from one of the most imposing linemen in college football, the Sooners’ Thompson, a 6-5, 325-pound, fifth-year senior and married father of two. 

OU thumped the Vols, 34-13, but Thompson came away such a believer in Barnett that after the game the Oklahoma all-conference tackle not only sought out Barnett to praise him, he also walked over to one of the UT coaches to tell him how impressed he was with the young Vol. "He’s gonna be a great player," Thompson said of Barnett, who had five tackles and one TFL in the game.

Thompson admits he didn’t keep up with how Barnett did the rest of the season, but when informed this week of the freshman’s record-setting year said, "I’m not even surprised. He played with a lot of tenacity. Some linemen give up when you stop their initial move, but he kept trying to counter the moves and he’s got some good strength in him. 

"I wish I would’ve had a lot more film on him," he said through a laugh.

"He just plays really hard," said Ole Miss co-OC and O-line coach Matt Luke, who watched Barnett make 10 tackles, four TFLs and three sacks in Oxford last October. "If you stop his first move he gives you another one, he gets off blocks, he keeps coming. He didn’t play like a true freshman. He gave Laremy some problems. He’s not just a pass rusher. He’s big enough to play on a tight end and tackle and stop the rush. Usually most guys are either good against the run or good pass rushers. He’s both."

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Barnett’s matchup with Scherff, the 2014 Outland Trophy winner, almost didn’t happen. Barnett had been hampered by an injured shoulder, a problem that would eventual require surgery and keep him out of spring ball. Even though he typically plays on the right side, UT practiced Barnett on the left side to try to protect his ailing shoulder. The Vols staff wanted to play Barnett in the game on the left side as well, but the player lobbied to line up across from Scherff to maintain his usual role on the defense’s right side. Barnett’s stats were modest in the TaxSlayer Bowl — three tackles and one quarterback hurry — but UT was dominant, jumping out to a 35-7 halftime lead en route to a 45-28 win.

"He’s one of the most driven individuals I’ve ever been around," Jones said of Barnett. "From not only his play on the field but what he does off the field, in the classroom, in the community. Derek is a great symbol for what’s happening here with the transformation at Tennessee."

When Jones took over the UT coaching job in 2013, he inherited a program that under his predecessor Derek Dooley had suffered back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in over 100 years and had lost 14 of its previous 16 SEC games. Worse still, the program was in disarray off the field. Jones’ motto is "brick by brick," and he calls Barnett one of his pillars for his dogged work ethic and his attention to detail.

The Nashville native actually grew up an Ohio State fan, however the Buckeyes didn’t recruit him too hard until later in the process. By then, he was deciding between UT and Mizzou. Ultimately, the pull to help restore Tennessee football back to powerhouse status kept him in state, especially since so many other top recruits were doing so. Hurd, wideout Josh Malone and DB Todd Kelly Jr. were among the local blue-chippers buying in to Jones’ vision. "I just thought, ‘I don’t want to miss out on this,’ " Barnett said. "I had a good feeling that we could make a lot of noise here."

Sparked by Barnett, UT went 7-6 last season, notching the Vols’ first winning season since 2009 despite fielding the youngest team in the country. Off the field, the Vols just produced the highest team GPA in the program’s history at 2.85 (it was 2.33 the semester before Jones’ staff arrived). There were 51 Vols, including Barnett, to achieve a 3.0 GPA — up from 12 prior to this regime. Of their 10 mid-year enrollees, eight had a 3.0 or higher. In the previous semester, Barnett, a communications major, had a 3.2 GPA.

"(Academics) are real important to my mom, so it’s very important to me," said Barnett. "I went to a good private high school (Brentwood Academy) that prepared me well for college. I think it’s more time management than anything. Sometimes you’re really tired and just want to get some sleep, but UT does a good job with helping us manage our time. I’d say they set us up for success."

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Barnett’s drive and maturity is reflected when you hear him talk about his focus coming off a record-setting freshman season. Like whenever someone brings up his 20.5 TFLs, he thinks about the tackles for loss he missed out on. "I feel like there is so much improvement I can make and build on to what I did," he said, adding that he wants to do better at getting off blocks, use his hands more and be more consistent with his get-off.

Beyond that, the guy who has always looked and carried himself like he’s much older than he really is knows he’s no longer the youngest guy on the D-line. This winter, blue-chip recruits Shy Tuttle and Kyle Phillips arrived early. "I have to be a better leader now," Barnett says. "Shy and Kyle are here. I looked up to (senior) Curt Maggitt. He’s taught me a lot. Now I have to do the same thing for the younger guys. (Maggitt) said be vocal and don’t be afraid to get on somebody, because at the end of the day we’re all here to win ball games."

And so even from the sidelines, Barnett would let any of his teammates, especially the D-linemen, know if they’re not hustling to the ball. He says because of the effort he puts on film, Barnett feels he’s earned the right to speak out.

The coaching staff couldn’t be happier about that. This will still be one of the younger teams in the SEC and despite all the optimism around the state thanks to a strong finish to 2014 and a top-five recruiting class coming in, realistically the Vols are probably still a year away from making a run at the SEC East title, let alone the conference championship.

However, ask Barnett what a realistic goal is for 2015 and he doesn’t hesitate.

"To win the SEC championship," Barnett said. "We’re good. We have a lot of talent here."

Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks, came out in October, 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.