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VOL. 7 | NO. 52 | Saturday, December 20, 2014

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Dave Link

Vols’ Barnett Faces Nation’s Best in Iowa’s Scherff

DAVE LINK | The Ledger

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KNOXVILLE – Derek Barnett is spending most of the Christmas holidays away from his Nashville home, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Instead, Barnett is focused on football with his teammates at the University of Tennessee (6-6), which plays Iowa (7-5) in the Jan. 2 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., now called the TaxSlayer Bowl.

It’s the first time Barnett, who played prep football at Brentwood Academy, has been away from home this time of year.

Not a big deal, he says.

Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett, a freshman from Nashville, ranks fourth nationally in tackles for losses and has been named to three freshman All-America teams.

(AP Photo/Amy Smotherman Burgess)

“I talk to my mom (Christine) all the time,” Barnett adds. “It’s not too bad ’cause I’ve got a bunch of friends that let me come over to their house, like T.K. (freshman safety Todd Kelly Jr. of Knoxville). I go over to his house, and his parents take care of me as well, just like they’re my mom and dad, so it’s not too bad right now.”

The Vols were back on the practice field Sunday afternoon for the first time since the previous Sunday (Dec. 7), the day they were invited to the TaxSlayer Bowl.

Bowl preparation is a new experience, not just for the freshmen like Barnett, but almost the entire UT team.

UT’s last bowl was in 2010 when Derek Dooley’s first Vols team lost in two overtimes to North Carolina in the Music City Bowl. The only players remaining from that team are redshirt seniors.

Barnett wants the TaxSlayer Bowl to be the start of a long bowl run for UT.

“I’m excited to go down there,” Barnett says. “I mean, it’s just the beginning. Everybody’s excited for us going to a bowl game, but I feel like we’re going to go to a main bowl game and play in championships while we’re here.”

Barnett has enjoyed a breakout debut for the Vols. His 20.5 tackles for losses lead the SEC’s freshmen and ranks fourth nationally among all players. His 10 sacks rank 13th nationally. He’s been chosen to the All-SEC Freshman team and three freshman All-American teams.

But Barnett hasn’t faced a challenge like he’ll see in Jacksonville.

Iowa’s offensive line features senior left tackle Brandon Scherff, this year’s Outland Trophy winner, making him the nation’s top interior lineman.

Barnett, a four-star recruit, will line up against the 6-5, 320-pound Scherff.

“I look forward to it,” Barnett says. “I’ve watched film on him, heck of a ballplayer. I’ll come ready to play. I’ve faced a bunch of good guys in the SEC, so it’s another good guy I’m going to face. I’ve got to be ready.”

Same for Kelly Jr.

The former Webb School of Knoxville standout was also chosen to the All-SEC freshman team after playing in all 12 regular-season games with three starts.

For Kelly Jr., getting to practice this week was a privilege, not a chore.

“I always want to play football,” Kelly Jr. explains. “I always want to reach my goals, and as a team, we just wanted to play in a bowl game, so we’d be very disappointed if we were at home. We’re excited and thrilled to be here. Even though we’re practicing while other people are at home, it will be worth it in the end.”

Kelly Jr. is one of seven “legacy” freshmen on UT’s roster. His father, Todd Kelly Sr., was a defensive end for UT from 1989-92.

During those years, the Vols went to the Cotton Bowl (1989 season, 31-27 win over Arkansas), Sugar Bowl (1990, 23-22 win over Virginia), Fiesta Bowl (1991, 42-17 loss to Penn State), and Hall of Fame Bowl (1992, 38-23 win over Boston College).

“He’s just excited that now it’s finally my chance to play for Tennessee and show everybody what I can do rather than what he’s done in the past,” Kelly Jr. says of his father.

“He’s excited for me. He texts me all the time and encourages me to just keep working hard every day and strive to be my best.”

His work is paying dividends.

Kelly Jr.’s three interceptions are the most for a true freshman at UT since Eric Berry had five in 2007, and he joined Barnett and starting right guard Jashon Robertson on the All-SEC Freshman team.

“It was awesome,” Kelly Jr. said of being named to the team.

“It was one of my goals coming into the season, just to be the best player I could be for our team. Ultimately, I’m glad to reach the bowl game, but I’m glad that I made the (freshman) team, but it’s all thanks to my teammates for supporting me and allowing me to make those plays.”

Like his players, UT coach Butch Jones doesn’t want to be satisfied with a bowl game.

Jones wants it to be the norm every year.

“That is one of the great benefits of being in a bowl game – it’s getting back to the standard and expectations of Tennessee football,” Jones explains.

“Tennessee football is not supposed to be home for the holidays, and we’re embarking on our 50th bowl appearance as a proud football program, and that’s the standard and the expectation, and it’s also one of the things that we continue to talk about.”

Freshman running back Jalen Hurd doesn’t need a lesson on UT’s bowl history.

Hurd played for Hendersonville’s Beech High School, so he’s heard about Vols’ football most of his life. Bowl games were a given at UT for years.

“It’s huge for the program, and really, we expect ourselves to go to a bowl game every single year just because we’re Tennessee, and that’s the expectation for us,” Hurd adds.

Hurd has also been an impact player – and somewhat of a surprise omission from the All-SEC freshman team – as the Vols’ leading rusher with 777 yards.

His Christmas holidays started the way he wanted, even though he’s away from home.

“It’s all right,” Hurd says. “I’m playing the game I love, so I really can’t get too bummed out, and I’m at the best college I could ever be at. It’s amazing. We get to go home for Christmas, so that’s pretty awesome, too.”

UT’s bowl practices continue through Sunday. The Vols are off Monday through Friday [Dec. 22-26] before returning to campus for two practices Dec. 27-28. They travel to Jacksonville on Dec. 28 and have their first practice there on Monday, Dec. 29.

Notable notes

Family Time at Bowl: Jones says the team will have opportunities to enjoy time with their families during the trip. The Vols will stay at the Sawgrass Marriott in Ponte Vedra, Fla.

“The great thing is, I’m sure most of our families will get together in Jacksonville,” Jones adds. “They’ll be around their families, and it’s an opportunity again, staying at Sawgrass, it’s just a lot of great things and they deserve it, but it’s also the standard that we expect here at Tennessee to be playing in bowl games.”

Four Stars Transfer: Three true freshmen with four-star ratings when they came to UT have decided to transfer and have left the team: defensive lineman Dewayne Hendrix of O’Fallon, Ill., running back Derrell Scott of Havelock, Fla., and tight end Daniel Helm of Glenwood, Ill.

Helm played the most of the three departed freshmen – 12 games and two starts with six catches for 37 yards. Scott played in two games and had 11 carries for 40 yards.

Hendrix played in seven games and had two tackles, but UT’s defensive coaches seemed to like his upside at times during the season.

Jones didn’t give specifics on their reasons for transferring.

“Every individual has a different reason, a different circumstance for that, but the only thing we can do is thank them and help them and provide them help in finding another school and whatever they wish to do,” Jones explains.

Berry in the Backfield: With the transfer of Scott, the Vols were down another running back when they returned to practice Sunday, so Jones opted to give freshman safety/kick returner Evan Berry some carries.

Hurd and senior Marlin Lane carried the rushing load for the Vols this year, and the Vols should have a healthy Devrin Young (ribs injury) back for the bowl game.

Still, Jones said the bowl practices are a chance for teams to experiment with moves that may become permanent.

“Evan did play running back in high school (at Creekside High in Fairburn, Ga.),” Jones says.

“The great thing about bowl practices is you take the first couple of bowl practices, and if there’s individuals that you want to see play different positions, it’s a great chance to get a jump start on spring football, and Evan Berry has done a tremendous job.

“He’s making great strides at safety, but it was an opportunity (Sunday) to see what he could really do with the ball in his hands.”

More Honors for Barnett, Robertson: Barnett and starting right guard Jashon Robertson were chosen to ESPN’s True Freshman All-American team, which was announced Monday.

Robertson, of Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy, started all 12 games this season after making the move from the defensive line during training camp.

He is the fourth true freshman in UT history to start the season opener on the offensive line; others are Bill Mayo (1981), Michael Munoz (2000), and Ja’Wuan James (2010).

Robertson joined Barnett and Kelly Jr. on the SEC All-Freshman team last week.

“It means a lot to me,” Robertson said of the SEC award.

“It was a goal of mine at the start of the season, and it’s a blessing to be a part of that team with a lot of talented guys on that list. I’m very thankful.”

Glued to iPad: Jones says he’s loaded his iPad with video of Iowa and studies up whenever he gets a chance.

“Yeah, every flight I’ve had it on my iPad, watching it every free moment I have,” Jones notes.

“They were 7-3 at one point in time. They have played a lot of bowl teams on their schedule, so it’s going to be a great challenge for us.”

Maryville’s Jackson De-Commits: Maryville High School senior defensive end Dylan Jackson de-committed from Tennessee on Monday and became even more of a target for LSU, where he went on an official visit in October.

LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis is recruiting Jackson and has a relationship with the Jackson family dating back to his previous years coaching at UT.

Jackson, 6-6, 255 pounds, also took an official visit to Stanford in September.

Thoughts for Auburn: Jones began Sunday’s post-practice press conference with words about Auburn freshman football player Jakell Mitchell, who was shot and killed at an apartment complex near the Auburn campus early Sunday morning.

“I would like to first start off with our thoughts and prayers for the Auburn football program and Jakell Mitchell and the tragedy that occurred there,” Jones said.

“Our football team, our program has them in our thoughts and in our prayers.”

Dave Link is a freelance writer living in Knoxville.

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