Tennessee's Barnett surging in second half of season again
After recording just one sack in Tennessee's first five contests, Barnett has five sacks over his last four games. As a freshman last season, Barnett had nine of his 10 sacks during Tennessee's final seven games.
Barnett now has a legitimate chance of eventually matching his 2014 production, a prospect that seemed highly improbable a month ago. He will try to post a sack for the fifth straight game Saturday when Tennessee (5-4) hosts North Texas (1-8).
''I'm just trying to put pressure on quarterbacks and be disruptive so we can win as many games as possible and go to a good bowl game,'' Barnett said.
Barnett offers a simple explanation for why he wasn't producing earlier in the season.
''I just wasn't playing good football at the time,'' Barnett said.
His coaches and teammates believe the reason is a bit more complicated.
Junior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin says Barnett has been applying pressure all season but that opposing quarterbacks previously were throwing the ball just before getting taken down. Those quarterbacks haven't been quite as fortunate lately.
Injury issues also may have directly and indirectly affected Barnett's early-season production.
Barnett and Curt Maggitt combined for 21 sacks last season, making Tennessee the only Football Bowl Subdivision program to return two players who had double-digit sack totals a year ago. But a hip injury has sidelined Maggitt since the second game of the season, allowing opposing offenses to focus on slowing down Barnett. Maggitt likely will remain sidelined at least through the end of the regular season.
Barnett needed time to adjust to the extra attention he was receiving. He was held without a sack in the first three games that Maggitt missed.
''It's a little frustrating at times, but I look at it as a compliment,'' Barnett said. ''They're not leaving me one-on-one with a tackle. That's a compliment to me.''
Tennessee coaches also say Barnett has dealt with his own injuries, though they haven't specified the exact nature of what's bothering him. Barnett has still managed to play in each of Tennessee's first nine games.
''He just has not been totally healthy yet,'' defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. ''(He's) fighting through that. When he's at full speed, we'll be excited.''
Barnett downplays the impact the injuries have had on his performance by saying that ''when it's time to play ball, I'm fine.'' Barnett also notes that at this point in the season, he can start to capitalize on all the bumps and bruises opposing offensive linemen have endured over the course of the year.
''I don't think anybody's been 100 percent really, except maybe the kicker or punter,'' Barnett said. ''Maybe the snapper, too. Especially in the trenches, nobody's 100 percent.''
Whatever the cause, Barnett unquestionably has been more productive lately.
Stripling pointed out that Barnett has started showing more of his personality on the practice field. Head coach Butch Jones says Barnett is displaying better fundamentals on game days.
''At times (earlier) he was trying to be too perfect, where now he's much more comfortable,'' Jones said. ''He's getting off the ball. He's winning the first step. He's really worked hard on his technique.
''I think he's been hampered by nagging injuries. To his credit, he continues to go and go and go. He has a great internal drive.''
AP College Football: collegefootball.ap.org