By STEVE MEGARGEE
AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett is returning home with a chance to make history.
Barnett, who is from Nashville, heads into the final regular-season game of his junior year with 31 career sacks. That leaves him just one shy of Reggie White's 33-year-old Tennessee career record.
All season, Barnett has downplayed the importance of setting that record. That hasn't changed now that he's only one away it as he heads to his hometown for the 24th-ranked Volunteers' Saturday matchup with Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-5 SEC).
"I would be excited to catch that record back home, but I'd be more excited if we get a `W,' " Barnett said after earning his 31st sack last week in a 63-37 victory over Missouri. "Every time I step on the field, that's what I'm worried about is winning. If that's me getting a sack, helping the team win, then (that's) good. Or if that's me just affecting the quarterback, getting no sacks and we still win, I'm fine with that."
Barnett already is the first Southeastern Conference player ever to post at least 10 sacks in three separate seasons. After posting 10 sacks each of his first two seasons, Barnett has an SEC-leading 11 sacks this year.
Saturday's game also matches the SEC's two top players in tackles for loss, as Barnett has 17 and Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham has 16 1/2.
Tennessee (8-3, 4-3) has needed Barnett more than ever to lead a defense decimated by injuries at every level.
The line lost three of its top tackles when Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie suffered season-ending injuries and Danny O'Brien was dismissed from the team. The linebacker corps lost Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Quart'e Sapp to season-ending injuries and also was missing Darrin Kirkland Jr. for five games due to a high ankle sprain. The secondary lost Cam Sutton for six games and could be without leading tackler Todd Kelly Jr. for a second straight game this week.
"I remember him in the locker room at halftime getting on guys, pushing the defense to play better," quarterback Joshua Dobbs said. "If he sees guys are slacking or he sees guys are doing well, he's the first one to say anything."
Barnett also has led by example. He has played his best when the stakes are highest, as all 11 of his sacks this season have come in SEC competition.
"When I watch him, that dude's a monster," Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. "He's a beast one-on-one. I've seen him beat one guy, two guys, three guys."
Barnett's 50 career tackles for loss rank third in school history and put him three away from the school record set by Leonard Little, who had 53 from 1995-97.
The only active Football Bowl Subdivision player with more career sacks is Texas A&M's Myles Garrett, who has 32 1/2.
"He's got a great motor," said Tennessee offensive tackle Brett Kendrick, who has the unenviable task of lining up against Barnett in practice. "Even if you stop his initial move, he's always got a counter off that one, and even if you stop that, he's probably got a counter off that one. He just never stops."
As well as Barnett has played, Tennessee's defense has struggled overall. Tennessee ranks 11th out of 14 SEC teams in total defense and has given up over 400 yards rushing in each of its last two games.
That may explain why Barnett has been overlooked on the national award circuit. Barnett wasn't selected as a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Chuck Bednarik Award, separate honors given out to the nation's best overall defensive player.
"I don't want to take away from anybody else who was nominated for these national awards, but I don't know what else an individual has to do," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "(Considering) the transformation of our football program - the mentality, him as a person, him as a competitor and the productivity that he's meant to our football program - I think you'd be hard pressed anywhere in the country to find anybody better or more deserving than Derek Barnett."
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.
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