By CHIP CIRILLO
Nebraska quarterback Ryker Fyfe was surprised when a reporter told him Derek Barnett recorded only one sack in the Music City Bowl.
It seemed like a lot more.
The former Brentwood Academy star chased Fyfe down from behind late in the fourth quarter, breaking the Tennessee career record with his 33rd sack in the Volunteers’ 38-24 win Friday.
“That was his only sack?” Fyfe said at the post-game press conference. “It seemed like he was back there all the time. It felt like I had a lot of hurry-ups and I always had to kind of know where he was at on the field and which side he was on. Yeah, he’s a good player.”
Fyfe felt the brunt of Barnett’s power on the 9-yard loss.
“My head was just – like, I was seeing stars and I thought I was concussed,” Fyfe said. “I think I might have a mild concussion, I’m not sure. Yeah, he was in the backfield a lot.”
Barnett had four quarterback hurries, put constant pressure on Fyfe, six tackles, two pass breakups and nearly sacked him several times before breaking Reggie White’s record.
“What can I say about No. 9?” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said of Barnett. “In my opinion, he’s the best defensive end in the country, the best defensive player in the country. And he works his craft every single day. Ultra, ultra competitive.”
Barnett’s defensive teammates mobbed him and the Volunteers’ bench emptied to celebrate with him after he broke the record, forcing Jones to call a timeout with 3:29 left to avoid an unsportsmanlike conduct or delay of game penalty.
“I think that shows you the respect that our football team has for Derek Barnett and the excitement and the unselfishness of our football team that they wanted to go celebrate with him because they knew that was a milestone, that was something very, very special,” Jones said. “And that’s one of those moments in time that you’ll always remember.”
Barnett prides himself in being relentless and the final sack of his career was another example of that. The 6-foot-3, 265-pound junior declared for the NFL Draft on Tuesday and is likely to be selected in the first round.
“The football gods reward you if you keep grinding,” Barnett said.
Barnett kidded that he got someone else’s help on a fourth-down pass interference penalty on Tennessee’s Marquill Osborne that kept a Nebraska drive alive with time running out in the game.
Five plays later, he made the record-breaking sack.
“I think Reggie probably helped on that,” Barnett said. “I think he was looking down. I think he probably tossed a flag for me. It’s just crazy how things work.
“It was very special, my family and friends were here, but it was even more special to be with my teammates. A lot of people don’t see all the work we put in. It gets tough sometimes, but it’s very rewarding to finish with a win and be champions of the Music City Bowl.”
Barnett wasn’t a Tennessee fan as a youngster, but he grew to admire the late White – a Pro Football Hall of Famer who retired after the 2000 season as the NFL’s all-time sack leader with 198.
“I knew Reggie White was the greatest pass rusher – the greatest d. lineman – of all time,” Barnett said. “For my name to be in that category, it just says a lot and it means a lot to me.”
The significance of Barnett’s accomplishment hit UT safety Todd Kelly Jr. immediately.
“I just thought about Reggie White … and realizing that my teammate, my former roommate, just broke his record,” Kelly said. “And Reggie White will always be a legend at the University of Tennessee, but just to know that I played with a legend at the University of Tennessee speaks volumes for the person he is. When he made that play, he was ready to line up and he didn’t want to celebrate. He gives his all in anything he does.”
After several near misses, Barnett finally recorded his record-breaking sack.
“Have you ever seen one of those movies where you knew what was going to happen and it just keeps building and building?” Vols defensive end LaTroy Lewis said. “At the end when it finally happened our entire sideline exploded and I’m looking over at Coach Jones. I’m like, ‘Man, you’ve got to call timeout or do something because I don’t know if everybody’s going to stay on the sideline.’ It was exciting, I wanted that more than anything for Derek.”
Kelly kept telling Barnett he would eventually get the sack.
“When you’re a pass rusher, you might play 70 to 80 plays and only get one sack, but if you get one sack every game you’re an All-American, aka Derek,” Kelly said.
Barnett has friendly demeanor off the field, but he turns into a different person between the white lines.
“There’s a Derek Barnett that I know and a Derek Barnett that I don’t know,” Kelly said. “When he steps on that field I don’t know what’s in him, but it’ a beast. It’s unknown He gives 110 percent and he’s a guy that really exemplifies what it means to be a Tennessee Volunteer.”
Fyfe, pressed into a starting role due to Tommy Armstrong’s hamstring injury, saw the nasty side of Barnett who plays with an edge.
“He talks a lot of trash out there, but he’s a good player,” Fyfe said. “He had a lot of hurry-ups on me so he was getting it backed up pretty quick, but that’s a combination of things. It’s maybe not blocking him right, it’s me holding on to the ball too long, it’s good coverage. It forces you to get the ball out quick, obviously, and yea, it kind of disrupts your timing with receivers and stuff so it was a big factor, I think in our offense — Barnett.”
Lewis, Barnett and defensive end Corey Vereen texted often during the holiday break about how well the defensive line practiced leading up to the bowl game sponsored by Franklin American Mortgage.
Vereen, Lewis and defensive tackle Jonathan Kongbo also sacked Fyfe as the Volunteers held the Cornhuskers to 61 rushing yards and forced them to punt on their first five possessions as UT built a 21-7 halftime lead.
“I’m proud of (Derek) and he can officially call himself one of the – not one of the — the greatest of all time,” Lewis said.
Lewis knew Barnett was something special the first day he saw him in pads.
“He wanted to be great at everything he did, not just as a pass rusher, but as a run stopper,” Lewis said. “When he had to drop in coverage he wanted to be great at that, too. I do not think this is the peak for Derek Barnett at all.”
Vereen noticed something special in Barnett before he put on pads.
“We were running little laps around the field and he was burning everybody,” Vereen said. “He was keeping up with DBs in that group. That’s when I knew. OK, there’s something special about this kid because you don’t see a lot of people doing that.”
Vereen hadn’t seen a UT player do that since A.J. Johnson, a linebacker who led the Southeastern Conference in tackles in 2012.
The UT front seven and secondary played in harmony during the win.
“Just having the front seven have that kind of penetration, that kind of effect on the quarterback – I mean that definitely makes it a lot easier on the defensive backs, said Vols nickelback Rashaan Gaulden, a former Independence standout. “When we have coverage sacks on the back end it allows the quarterback to roll out, scramble and different guys can make sacks so it goes both ways.”
Nebraska allowed only 11 sacks in its first 12 games with the mobile Armstrong taking most of the snaps.
“We had a hard time blocking defensive front, of course, No. 9 in particular, and then we gave up big plays,” Huskers coach Mike Riley said. “As far as offensive performance, the biggest factor going in was gonna be could we block the Tennessee defensive front and could we block Barnett? When we did get a little time, we made plays.”
Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs and Barnett conducted UT’s Pride of the Southland Band after the win.
“I was a little nervous at first, but I saw Dobbs up there so I had to go,” Barnett said.
“He asked me what to do,” said Dobbs, who rushed for three touchdowns and passed for another. The senior passed for 291 yards and rushed for 118.
UT fans in the sellout crowd of 68,496 chanted “Bar-nett” after he broke the record.