November 23, 2008

Forget the rest; Berry best

NASHVILLE -- Referring to Eric Berry as the best defensive back in college football wasn't enough for Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis.

Mentally scrambling to come up with the appropriate words to compliment his star safety, Chavis wanted to be candid but without taking it too far. Bold praise from a coach directed at his own players, he explained, often is mocked publicly.

But he finally decided to ignore that logic, bestowing upon Berry the lofty title that immediately came to mind with one game remaining in an increasingly impressive sophomore season.

"I think he's the best defensive player in the country," Chavis said, "bar none."

It would have been hard to argue Saturday.

Berry lifted Tennessee to a 20-10 victory at in-state rival Vanderbilt and set another Southeastern Conference record with a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the first half, the highlight of a game that also included his highly anticipated debut at quarterback.

The second-quarter interception of Commodores quarterback Chris Nickson, which was Berry's second returned for a score this year, allowed Berry to break the SEC record for interception-return yards in a season.

Berry now has returned his seven picks this season for 265 yards. Florida's Joe Brodsky set the previous conference record, which stood for 52 years, with 244 interception-return yards in 1956.

"Eric has achieved enough here already to be one of the greatest who has ever played here at Tennessee, and certainly is going to be one of the greatest in the conference if he stays healthy," UT coach Phillip Fulmer said.

"He's got unbelievable personality, that dynamic personality that you build a football team around. We've built a defense around him in a lot of ways. He's fit into that leadership mode and he's a guy that, if he's around the ball, he's going to impact the team some way or another."

Berry made even more of an impact than usual against Vanderbilt.

After stopping the Commodores' opening drive with a sack of Nickson on third-and-13 from Tennessee's 33-yard line, Berry quickly turned an errant second-quarter pass into a momentum-shifting touchdown.

Nickson stood in the pocket on a third-and-20 pass play from his own 38, Berry said, and started "peeking" at running back Jeff Jennings in the middle of the field. Blitzing linebacker Rico McCoy, however, forced Nickson to hold the ball a bit longer.

Vandy's senior quarterback eluded the pressure long enough to lob a short pass toward Jennings that sailed over his head directly to Berry, who was almost in full stride when he made the catch and darted untouched down the right side of the field for a 17-0 lead.

"I guess (Nickson) thought (Jennings) was still open when he beat the rush, and he tried to throw it," Berry said. "I was already breaking on it, so I just took it all the way."

Berry wasn't quite as productive with his first snaps behind the center. The former high-school quarterback rushed four times for 11 yards out of a set virtually identical to the so-called "G-Gun" package that features sophomore wide receiver Gerald Jones at quarterback.

Berry's offensive highlight was a 7-yard run on his first carry that helped UT move the chains for the first time.

"That was exciting, man," Berry said. "Just being on that side of the ball again, not being over there since high school, it brought back a lot of memories. I had a lot of fun doing it."

He also might have been in a lot of pain.

Berry revealed in the postgame press conference that he first felt pain in his left shoulder after Tennessee lost to LSU in last year's SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. Fulmer said Tuesday that a shoulder injury had prevented Berry from playing quarterback earlier in the season.

The soreness didn't stop Berry from taking snaps against the Commodores, but it hasn't gone away.

"It's pretty bad," Berry said. "I probably should have said something last year, because it was bothering me after the LSU game. I just never said anything about it because that's how I was raised, you know? If it's not killing you, wrap up and go on out and play."

Chavis was hardly surprised to hear Berry's explanation for playing through an injury that could require surgery after the season.

It's exactly what Chavis has come to expect from his choice for the nation's best defensive player.

"He comes to work every day," Chavis said of Berry. "You'll never get an excuse out of him. He doesn't do that. He's not that kind."

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