When they signed with Tennessee in February, expectations for defensive ends Derek Barnett and Dewayne Hendrix were modest at best. After all, it’s very rare for freshman defensive linemen to come in and consistently perform at the level needed to compete in the Southeastern Conference. Most often, talented freshmen along the lines begin to make an impact around the midway point of the season, after having ample opportunity to observe and learn the scheme.
Throughout the first week of fall camp, however, both players have shown at various times that they may be ready sooner, rather than later.
“I’ll give you a pair of names,” Defensive line coach Steve Stripling said when asked for guys who have impressed thus far in camp. “I think Barnett and Hendrix have jumped out, and they’re showing that I think they’re mature enough and physical enough at this point to where we’ll see where they can end up on the depth chart.”
Hendrix and Barnett each reported to Tennessee weighing in at close to 280 pounds. With the other ends on the roster currently weighing anywhere from Joe Henderson’s 234 to Kendal Vickers’ 260, there were some questions as to whether or not Hendrix and Barnett were already too big for their position and may be better suited at defensive tackle. Stripling didn’t seem concerned in the least when asked about their size, and actually said it could prove advantageous.
“It’s all based on your athleticism. They can be large and athletic, and they can still play end, if that makes sense. You’ve got the real package when you can get a 275-pound end that’s athletic.”
During Thursday’s practice – number six of the preseason – Hendrix and Barnett took the reps as the second team defensive ends when the Vols lined up for their walk through, a clear sign that they are quickly ascending the depth chart. The learning curve that has given young players difficulties in the past was curtailed somewhat this summer thanks to the NCAA rule change that allowed coaches to meet with players for two hours during the week.
Stripling praised the rule change for giving young players an opportunity to learn schemes and formations before practice ever begins – something he says will pay dividends for his younger defensive linemen this year.
“I’m really excited about the new guys. Obviously we had some in the mid-year here, which really helped, and then the new rule that allowed us to spend two hours weekly with them this summer was real beneficial. In the past, you never even saw those guys in the summer.”
Derek Barnett in particular has been singled out multiple times this week for his effort and playmaking ability during scrimmage work. Barnett possesses the physical tools and mentality that his coaches look for when recruiting defensive linemen, and the extra time in the classroom with his coaches gave him a head start that was previously unavailable to freshmen who didn’t enroll early.
Barnett’s ability to play with confidence has allowed him to excel through the first six practices. So much so that Butch Jones went out of his way praise Derek as one of the players who has stood out to him during the first week of camp.
“One individual who has really upped everyone’s level of play has been Derek Barnett,” Jones said. “Derek Barnett has had a tremendous camp, his effort…He made one of the best plays I’ve seen in a long time two days ago in practice, where he caught and chased Devrin Young down the sideline about 30 yards running to the football. It’s been great to see.”
But it hasn’t just been coaches praising the newcomers. Senior defensive linemen Jordan Williams recently moved inside to defensive tackle after playing at end for three years, and he too has noticed the playmaking ability of Hendrix and Barnett. Williams also singled out the two freshmen on Thursday for their work thus far and complimented their effort on the field.
“We just tell the young guys that if you’re going to mess up, mess up at 100 percent,” Williams said. “Give all the effort you can – and that’s what they’re doing.
“I’ve seen a lot of effort, especially from Barnett and Hendrix. They’ve been showing a lot of effort. Barnett had a great play the other day in practice. They’ve got the size, they just have to utilize it – get better with their hands and use their body weight a little but better.”
Williams also praised Barnett’s ability to come in prepared for the cerebral part of the game, again alluding to the extra time spent with the coaches in the summer as a big reason for his early success.
“I could tell from the summer he had the physical aspect, and he definitely has speed. It’s just a lot of times, D-linemen have trouble with the mental aspect of the game. But he’s picked it up real well, and he’s coming along great.”
The defensive line had another very strong practice on Thursday during the open portion that the media was able to see. The first and second team lines were each able to get consistent pressure on the quarterbacks and forced some poor throws. Hendrix and Barnett took work with the second team and each look like they are beginning to hone in on what Stripling is teaching them.
Impacting the quarterback has been a huge focal point for Stripling and his defensive line this offseason and throughout the first few practices. The Vols finished ranked last in the SEC for sacks in 2013 and are looking to improve that ranking drastically for 2014.
The addition of Derek Barnett and Dewayne Hendrix are providing early optimism for that improvement.