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Nine Weeks: How Good Can Derek Barnett Be?

Derek Barnett
Photo from Rocky Top Tennessee 2016 magazine
Bryan Lynn, LC Action Photos

Derek Barnett doesn’t belong in our 10 Questions series. He’s an answer, and a big one.

Only three players have recorded 10+ sacks in each of the last two years. One is Emmanuel Ogbah from Oklahoma State, who was just the first pick in the second round of the NFL Draft. The other two are Myles Garrett and Derek Barnett.

Garrett and Barnett have been compared for the last two years, but it’ll amp up significantly this season with both eligible for the draft and the Vols and Aggies set to square off on October 8. Both are projected top six picks in early mock drafts.

Barnett won’t just be battling Garrett this season. He’ll also have a chance to go after Tennessee’s record book.

His first sack of the 2016 season and 21st of his career will pass John Henderson and tie him with Parys Haralson for fifth all-time at Tennessee. He needs nine this fall to pass Leonard Little for second all-time. And then the big prize: Reggie White’s 32 career sacks, a dozen away. That’s as distinguished a list as you’ll find in the Tennessee record book, and no one has threatened the top spot since Leonard Little and Jonathan Brown left campus in 1997.

Tennessee’s run at the end of last season coincides with Barnett’s uptick in production. Last year as a sophomore he had to learn how to deal with more attention when Curt Maggitt went down in the Oklahoma game; Barnett got a sack against the Sooners but that was his only one during the Vols’ 2-3 start. But in the last eight games of the season Barnett scored nine sacks.

The Vols’ last first round pick was Ja’Wuan James in 2014 at #19. If he indeed turns in an enormous 2016 season, Derek Barnett will have a chance to join the best of the best as a Top 10 NFL Draft pick, an honor only Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning, Jamal Lewis, John Henderson, Jerod Mayo, and Eric Berry have claimed since league expansion.

These are as lofty a set of expectations as we’ve seen for a Tennessee junior since Berry. Simply turning in another 10 sack season might be enough to get him there. The thought that Barnett might continue to improve while he’s still in a Tennessee uniform? That’s thrilling for us and terrifying for everyone on the schedule.