The Tennessee football program has produced multiple NFL standouts in its history, but in this past season, the rookies from Rocky Top were the ones who stole the show.
In the 2017 NFL Draft, Derek Barnett, Alvin Kamara, Joshua Dobbs, Josh Malone, Cam Sutton and Jalen Reeves-Maybin were all selected by NFL teams out of Tennessee. Barnett and Kamara were the first players off of the board, with Barnett being taken with the 14th overall pick by the Philadelphia Eagles and Kamara being selected in the third round by the New Orleans Saints.
Barnett and Kamara were the first players in the class of Vols’ rookies to go in the draft, and they were also the first two to make substantial impacts with their respective teams.
Within two years in Knoxville, Kamara totaled 1,977 yards of offense with 23 total touchdowns and seemed to pick up right where he left off in the NFL with the Saints. He amassed 1,554 yards from scrimmage and scored 14 touchdowns on his way to being named the 2018 NFL Offensive Rookie of the year.
By the end of the season, the award seemed to be a lock for Kamara, as there were simply no teams that were able to truly stop him all season long.
“It’s an honor, there was definitely a lot of hard work put into it,” Kamara said during his acceptance speech. “I’m just blessed to be able to get that award. You can only do it once, so I’m happy I got it.”
Despite his humility, Kamara was arguably one of the most electrifying players in the NFL this season, showcasing a potential to improve his skills throughout his career.
Barnett came into the season as the first player from Tennessee to be selected in the first round of the draft since offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James was taken 19th overall by the Miami Dolphins in the 2014 NFL Draft. Barnett made waves in Knoxville by breaking Reggie White’s all-time sacks record and was selected to play for the same team that White competed for.
Barnett found himself on a crowded defensive line, with the Eagles having one of the most loaded defensive fronts in the league. However, he still managed to make an impact on the field, totaling five sacks throughout the season on the way to a Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots in his rookie year.
Barnett has possibly already made two of the defining plays of his career, forcing a pivotal strip-sack on Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum in the NFC Championship and a fumble recovery late in the Super Bowl to help clinch the victory for Philadelphia.
The importance of Barnett’s late game heroics against New England cannot be overstated. The Eagles held a 38-33 lead with 2:16 left in the fourth quarter when star signal caller Tom Brady dropped back to pass. Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham stripped Brady, and Barnett hustled to pick up the loose ball and help the Eagles regain possession.
The Eagles would go on to kick a field goal to raise the score by eight points and ultimately win the game.
Barnett’s play recognition to secure the fumble was arguably one of the biggest plays of the game.
“(Barnett is) going to have the duty to meet every challenge that comes along,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz told the Philly Voice during training camp. “He’s been up for it so far.”
Schwartz knew he had a solid player in Barnett but possibly didn’t anticipate that he would make as impactful of a play as he did in the Super Bowl.
The Vols have a long history of producing NFL talent, and this year was no different. While the other four players selected in last year’s draft still provide a great amount of potential on each of their teams, Alvin Kamara and Derek Barnett were able to stand out in their first seasons in the league.
However, many Tennessee fans would likely say that they expected nothing less from the former Vol standouts.