NCF Nation: Derek Barnett

The SEC is known for its defensive line talent, with dozens of NFL linemen having played for one of the conference’s 14 schools. But this was an uncommonly productive season for the league’s freshman pass-rushers, even by the SEC’s lofty standards.

Two true freshmen – Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett – earned second-team All-SEC honors from the league’s coaches and media, and several others enjoyed productive debut seasons in arguably the nation’s toughest conference.

Garrett set an SEC record for freshmen with 11 sacks this season, but Barnett might have been not just the conference’s best freshman defensive lineman -- he might have been the SEC’s best defensive lineman, period.

[+] EnlargeDerek Barnett
AP Photo/Wade PayneTennessee freshman Derek Barnett ranks third in the nation in tackles for loss.
Missouri’s Shane Ray won the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year awards from both the coaches and media, and he is the conference’s only player whose numbers stand up against Barnett's. Ray led the SEC with 14 sacks and 21 tackles for loss in 13 games, although six of his sacks and 9.5 of his tackles for loss came against Missouri’s weak nonconference opposition. Barnett made all 10 of his sacks against SEC opponents, as well as 18 of his 20.5 tackles for loss.

Barnett is the only freshman to rank among the national top 30 in tackles for loss (he’s third) and Ole Miss freshman defensive end Marquis Haynes is the only freshman in the national top 50 in forced fumbles (he’s tied for 29th with three). Garrett (tied for sixth with 11), Barnett (tied for 16th with 10) and Haynes (tied for 43rd with 7.5) are three of the only four freshmen to rank in the national top 50 in sacks.

Haynes did not post the ridiculous numbers that Garrett and Barnett did, but he was the best pass-rusher on a powerful Ole Miss defense. He led the Rebels in sacks, quarterback hurries (eight), and forced fumbles and is tied for the team lead with a host of teammates with one fumble recovery.

Those three were the headliners, but they are not the only freshman pass rushers who appear destined for SEC stardom. Here are three more freshmen who could strike fear into quarterbacks’ hearts next season:

OLB Lorenzo Carter, Georgia: Arguably the biggest recruit in Georgia’s 2014 class, Carter didn’t start for the first time until Game 9 against Kentucky. But he made the most of that opportunity wotj nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss against the Wildcats. The Freshman All-SEC honoree started the last four games and figures to become a major impact player in 2015.

OLB Rashaan Evans, Alabama: Earning playing time as a freshman on Alabama’s talented front seven is difficult, but Evans contributed as a role player. He made 15 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack thanks to impressive speed and a high motor. Once he gets an opportunity to play more, he’s going to be a regular visitor into opponents’ backfields.

DE Da'Shawn Hand, Alabama: The SEC’s coaches saw enough from Hand in limited action to name him to their Freshman All-SEC team. One of the nation’s most coveted recruits in 2014, Hand recorded just seven tackles, two sacks and two tackles for loss as a reserve on Alabama’s deep defensive line. Rest assured, his time is coming.

 
There’s been quite a bit of excitement in Knoxville recently, and it was easy to see why with Tennessee’s opening-day performance Sunday. In front of a capacity crowd -- the first sellout in a home opener since 2007 -- the Volunteers dominated a dangerous Utah State team who many thought could pull off the upset, 38-7.

A little old, a little new

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After scoring the opening touchdown, Tennessee’s special teams came up with a big play, and it was fitting that senior linebacker A.J. Johnson made the play. Johnson, an All-SEC talent who could’ve left early for the NFL, ran down on kickoff coverage and jarred the ball loose from the Utah State returner. To nobody’s surprise it was Todd Kelly Jr., one of 21 UT true freshmen (and 32 newcomers) to play Sunday night, who was there to recover the fumble.

Fourth-down stand

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All we’ve heard about this offseason is how the Volunteers are having to replace every starter on both their offensive and defensive lines. Well, the defensive line is tired of hearing about it. They held Chuckie Keeton and Utah State to 34 yards rushing in the first half, and when the Aggies tried to go for it on 4th-and-1 early in the second quarter, Jordan Williams and Derek Barnett were there to fill the hole and stuff Utah State, forcing a turnover on downs.

Welcome to Rocky Top, Von

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Everybody saw the sick one-handed touchdown grab that junior college transfer Von Pearson made in spring practice, so it should come as no surprise that Pearson caught a touchdown in his first game as a Volunteer. No, the catch wasn’t an instant SportsCenter Top-10 nominee, but it was certainly more meaningful. The play capped off a 13-play, 69-yard drive that ate up six minutes of clock and gave Tennessee a 24-0 lead.

More from Johnson

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Did you think Johnson was done just yet? The guy didn’t turn down the NFL and come back to Tennessee to not make plays. With the Volunteers already up 31-7 early in the fourth quarter, Johnson got the capacity crowd back into it when he intercepted Keeton and nearly took it back for a touchdown. It’s safe to say he’s not regretting his decision to stay. If anything, his stock will continue to rise with more games like this.

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