When discussing Heisman Trophy candidates for the 2016-17 season a few names automatically come to mind.
Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson appears to be the favorite right now, and that’s despite the Cardinals’ close loss to Clemson last weekend. Players such as Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr., Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and even Michigan defender/wildcat Jabrill Peppers are also popular names for college football’s greatest individual honor. Of course, old favorites such as Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette can make their national presence known in a heartbeat, so they’re well worth remembering when it comes to the Heisman discussion as well.
Tennessee junior defensive end Derek Barnett is another player who has lived up to the enormous expectations of the Heisman trophy so far this season. And though he may not be the first name that comes to mind, he’s putting together a 2016 campaign that is certainly Heisman worthy.
Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports has recognized that in one of his latest columns. The veteran football reporter named Barnett No. 4 on his list of the Top 5 Heisman candidates after Week 5. His explanation?
“Once again, the junior D-lineman helped bail the Vols out of a deep hole. His sack/forced fumble gave UT a lead at UGA and a few minutes later, he got pressure on Jacob Eason and forced an INT,” Feldman wrote. “Barnett’s leadership is also off the charts, as Tennessee finds its way back to prominence despite being without three of their best players on D.”
At 6-foot-3, 265 pounds, Barnett is widely considered as one of the best defensive ends in college football and he’s well on his way to a high NFL Draft selection if he decides to forgo his senior season at Tennessee once this campaign is over. So far through 2016 he’s notched 23 total tackles, including 14 solo. He’s recorded four sacks for negative 20 yards, 8.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, one pass broken up, three quarterback hurries and 5.3 tackles per game.
The funny thing about Barnett’s Heisman campaign is that it really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with numbers. He’s in a 23-way tie for the 27th ranking in the nation in total sacks so far this season. To put his four sacks in perspective, Pitt’s Ejuan Price leads the way with 7.5 sacks. Barnett is a little higher in the tackle for loss rankings, though, checking in at No. 8 nationally, but he is tied with Daeshon Hall of Texas A&M and Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham.
No, it’s not like Barnett’s numbers are out of this world. His presence has been, though, and that’s the one thing that can’t be tracked in the stat books.
Tennessee has had to make two second-half comebacks in a row in order to save its undefeated season and SEC title hopes (not to mention College Football Playoff hopes) and Barnett has been a huge part of both comebacks.
In the huge comeback against Florida, Barnett changed the tide for the Vols by recording is 21st and 22nd career sacks. He also recorded a tackle for loss and was a huge presence in the game for Tennessee. He finished the game with five total tackles, three tackles for loss and a pass broken up to go along with his sacks.
A week later against the Georgia Bulldogs, he once again helped change Tennessee’s second half momentum, playing a vital role in the win.
He recorded two sacks in the game, with one forcing a fumble in the end zone that fellow defensive end Corey Vereen pounced on for a touchdown. That score gave Tennessee its first lead of the game and it was one of the defining moments in a win that saw the Vols come back from a 17-7 halftime deficit.
On the very next series, Barnett once again got pressure on UGA freshman quarterback Jacob Eason. That pressure led to a Tennessee interception,
Barnett finished the game with five tackles, two sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss and the aforementioned forced fumble. His two sacks against UGA pushed him up in the all-time rankings for Tennessee football, as he now has the fifth-highest sack total in Vols’ history, passing Todd Kelly Sr.’s 22.5 sacks with 24 career sacks. The game also pushed him up the rankings of active FBS defenders in career sacks to second, and he was awarded SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors as a result.
Through it all, Barnett has remained humble and he’s doing his part to keep Tennessee focused on the greater goals ahead of it. Feldman mentioned leadership from Barnett above, and the defensive end displayed that after the miraculous win over UGA with his post-game quotes.
“It was the next game. It was a great win for us but we still have a long journey to go ahead of us,” he said when asked about what the game meant to the team. “We’ve got some good teams coming up and we’re excited to play them. We just have a great group of guys and have to keep it going.”
Perhaps Barnett is not the typical Heisman candidates. His numbers aren’t flashy and for a defender they need to be in order to sniff the trophy ceremony.
It’s hard to deny that he’s had a Heisman-esque impact for Tennessee, though.