Eric Berry isn’t worth a dime to the University of Tennessee’s defense. No, his value is best measured in the nickel.
First-year coach Lane Kiffin revealed last week at SEC football media days that he and his staff intend to use the All-American safety as a slot cornerback (a.k.a. nickel back) as well this fall. It is a move that not only should strengthen the Volunteers’ defense, it figures to enhance the draft stock of the junior who already projects as a top 10 pick in next year’s draft.
“To have Eric, a guy that could come down and play nickel as well as be a safety, I think NFL teams are going to fall in love with him,” Kiffin said. “…There aren't very many guys like that. There aren't very many guys in the NFL like that.”
Berry already has had a singular college career.
He enters 2009 as the single-season and career interception return yards record holder for both UT and the SEC. He needs just 15 more to break the NCAA career record set by Florida State’s Terrell Buckley from 1989-91.
Now he has the opportunity to set himself apart if he shows he can be just as effective at a second position and in a scheme taken right out of the NFL. UT’s new defensive coordinator is Monte Kiffin, who spent the last 26 years as an NFL assistant.
“I know a lot of the defense right now,” Berry said. “It's just kind of tough to get the terminology, the different names of the defenses, getting those things down. … So that's the tough part about it.”
Throughout most the last two years, he has made it look easy.
The psychology major out of Fairburn, Ga, has started every game of his college career and has earned freshman All-America (2007) and unanimous All-America (2008) honors. He was one of seven players who tied for the national lead with seven interceptions last fall but was the only one of that group who picked off passes in seven different games.
He’s so good that the UT athletics department believes he can pull off the nearly impossible feat of winning the Heisman Trophy and has begun a public relations campaign on his behalf.
Only one player whose primary role was on defense (Michigan’s Charles Woodson in 1997) ever has won the award.
“That would be cool, being put in the same category as Charles Woodson,” Berry said. “But I'd rather be in the same category as USC and Florida with the national championship, the SEC championship. That's a bigger accomplishment in my eyes. That's what we're trying to get done.”
For the first-year coaching staff, that means starting with Berry.
“We don't really have a depth chart,” Kiffin said. “Eric Berry is a starter — outside of that, we have 21 jobs open.”
Actually, Berry already has two jobs and that — Kiffin believes — makes him one of a kind.