TAMPA — Shaquil Barrett can now admit there was a time during his teenage years in East Baltimore when he became lazy. He missed school, stopped going to his football practices, didn’t work out and gained weight.
“He just kind of started to fall off,” his older brother Kevin Barrett said.
That’s a lot different from the Shaquil Barrett the Bucs see today.
The outside linebacker, in his first Tampa Bay season, doesn’t waste an opportunity to hone his craft as a pass rusher, and he is off to the NFL’s best sack start since Michael Jackson’s Thriller was dominating the Billboard charts. Barrett, 26, has eight sacks in three games. The only player with that many that fast since the NFL began to keep track of sacks in 1982 was the Jets’ Mark Gastineau in 1984.
Barrett is on pace for 42 sacks, which would shatter Michael Strahan’s season record of 22½ set in 2001.
The Bucs’ signing of Barrett to a one-year, $4 million deal looks like the league’s best offseason acquisition.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anybody get eight sacks in three weeks,” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said. “I’m sure it’s not going to be like that every week, but we like where he’s at right now.”
At 15, Barrett knew he needed a change. The final straw was when he and a friend were robbed of their wallets and cellphones walking home from a store.
So he left Baltimore to join his brother in Boys Town, a village in Nebraska near Omaha where kids have been provided structure since 1921, when Father Edward J. Flanagan established an orphanage there.
At Boys Town, Shaquil and Kevin lived in a home with a married couple and several other kids. They had chores and regular mealtimes.
The brothers were always close, and reuniting brought out the best in both.
“Before (Shaquil) came, I was motivated to get kicked out of Boys Town so I could get sent home back to Baltimore,” Kevin said.
Shaquil quickly learned that everything at Boys Town was earned, including playing football. If chores at home weren’t done, you couldn’t play.
“I needed more structure,” Shaquil said, “but it was a lot more than I expected. … It really wasn’t a school I needed to be at, and I really didn’t know what type of school it was, and if I did, I probably wouldn’t have went there.”
On the football field, he stood out immediately. His speed was evident. With Shaquil and Kevin leading the way, Boys Town, playing in one of Nebraska’s smaller classifications, went to two state title games. As a senior, Shaquil blocked six kicks.
“You could tell probably two practices into him getting there his sophomore year that this kid needed to play for us right away,” said Shaquil’s coach at Boys Town, Kevin Kush. “He was a nightmare for anybody, and we could play him anywhere. He knew every position, every line stunt.”
In 2010, the brothers went to Division II Nebraska-Omaha. Shaquil played football, and Kevin was a wrestler. But both programs were disbanded a year later.
Kush made a call to Nebraska, telling a friend on the staff about Shaquil, but he never received a call back. Colorado State was the only Division I team interested in Shaquil. He started three seasons there, 2011-13, and won Mountain West defensive player of the year honors as a senior, but went undrafted.
Shaquil worked his way onto the Broncos’ practice squad in 2014 but was cut twice. Life on the roster bubble was frustrating, and after that season, he committed to transforming his body. He cut down on his body fat — which he said was 20 percent at the time — and ate better to become leaner and faster off the line.
Shaquil credits his wife, Jordanna, whom he married in 2012, for helping his diet.
“I hit it really hard, cardio, weights, basketball, and my wife was meal prepping all the time, so it was easy to just grab a meal and warm it up,” he said.
“I just wanted to give myself the best chance I could to succeed and really earn a role on the team. It helped. I got a little faster, and the front-office people and the coaches liked to see that I was changing and really putting in an effort.”
Shaquil jokes that he left Colorado State with just two pass-rush moves, a bull rush and a double swipe. On the Broncos’ practice squad, he started testing more moves against the starting left tackle, gradually building up confidence getting into the backfield.
Once he joined the Broncos’ active roster in 2015, he started learning from some of the NFL’s best pass rushers: teammates Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Shane Ray and Bradley Chubb.
“I was just able to develop it over time,” Shaquil said. “Everybody says you have to have all these moves that look the same so they don’t know what’s coming. That’s what I’ve been trying to work on.
“If you’re a one-trick pony, it’s easy to defend, and now I’m trying to keep them guessing and just kind of work all my moves. But it came from everywhere, from me watching film or other guys, being in Denver.”
He logged four sacks last week against the Giants following a three-sack effort against the Panthers in Week 2.
“Normally, if a quarterback’s back there (holding the ball) and he gets a sack, it’s coverage, but (Shaquil is) getting some quick sacks,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s whipping guys fast, and that’s all him.
“He’s got a good delay move. He’s got a nice toolbox of moves, and as teams get used to him, I think he’s got a few more he hasn’t even used yet.”
Teammates see that Shaquil is still trying to learn with every play and know he will get more attention after his quick start.
“One of the things I love about a young guy like that is he actually listens,” said defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh. “On either the third or fourth sack (against the Giants), he reached for the ball like I told him to, and he got it out. He’s been doing a tremendous job.
“He’s probably going to get a little more attention the next handful of weeks … as people continue to notice him on film, and he’s just got to continue to keep pressing and do what he’s doing.”
Shaquil knows he will eventually see more double teams and was surprised he didn’t see more against the Giants. More often opponents decide to double team interior linemen.
“I guess they’re thinking it’s a fluke right now,” he said. “Hopefully, the Rams (the Bucs’ opponent Sunday in Los Angeles) think the same thing and give me some one-on-ones. I know everybody will step up and make big plays when their time comes.”
He was limited to a rotational pass-rusher role during his four seasons in Denver, so this is his first opportunity to be on the field every down. And just like every stop along the way, he’s making the most of it.
“He did everything right,” Kush said. “When there was a door of opportunity, he said, ‘I’m going through it. I’m going to take that.’ Just like he’s doing in Tampa now. He saw that opportunity to get on the field every down and took a leap of faith.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.