Tennessee Safety a Heisman Hopeful

• This is the 10th in an 11-part series previewing Southeastern Conference football teams. Up next: Vanderbilt

FAYETTEVILLE — In two seasons, Tennessee safety Eric Berry has established himself as one of the nation's top defensive players.

As Berry prepares for his junior year, he now hopes to be regarded as something else: College football's most outstanding player.

Berry enters his third season at Tennessee as a Heisman Trophy hopeful, thanks to a campaign launched by the Volunteers this summer. The school has set up a Web site to promote the Fairburn, Ga., native (berry4heisman.com). It also has paid for billboards in Tennessee, Atlanta and Florida, pumping Berry for the honor.

"I really love the UT staff for doing that for me," Berry said. "It's been fun. They notified me of it. I was all for it."

Tennesse coach Lane Kiffin said the Volunteers kicked off the campaign without fear that it would put added pressure on Berry.

"There's a lot of players that you would not want to promote the Heisman going into their junior year because they couldn't handle it," Kiffin said. "Eric can handle it."

It will difficult for Berry to win the trophy at the end of the season, but he deserves the pub. Berry was a unanimous, All-American selection in 2008. In 2007, he was the SEC's Freshman of the Year.

He has started all 26 games in his career and has piled up 158 tackles, 10 1/2 tackles for losses and 12 interceptions. He enters the season 15 interception return yards shy of breaking the NCAA record of 501 set by Florida State's Terrell Buckley from 1989-91.

There has been thoughts about expanding Berry's role on offense, too. He has dabbled on that side of the ball on occasion, logging 26 carries for 37 yards, and one catch for 3 yards in his career.

But for now, Berry said he isn't thinking about playing on offense or the Heisman Trophy. He just wants to lead Tennessee's defense under new coordinator Monte Kiffin. And turning the Vols' fortunes around after they struggled to a 5-7 finish in 2008.

"I'm very worried about this team and getting back to where we need to be," Berry said. "I just want to win games."


DIFFERENCE MAKER: Montario Hardesty enters the preseason as Tennessee's No. 1 tailback and the Vols are hoping he thrives in the role. Hardesty has been overshadowed by other backs through much of his career, but is a leader for an offense that struggled in 2008. So his performance will be key to Tennessee's season.

RISING STAR: Hardesty won't handle the load alone. The backfield will also be manned by highly touted newcomer Bryce Brown, who is expected to inject some big-play potential immediately this season. Brown is a player Vols fans are dying to see on the field and he'll get plenty of opportunities to carry the ball this fall.

BIGGEST STRENGTH: The most points Tennessee allowed last year was 30, which is remarkable considering the offense's woes. So with key performers like Berry, linebacker Rico McCoy, defensive tackle Dan Williams, and defensive end Wes Brown back, the Vols are in pretty good shape on that side of the ball once again.

BIGGEST QUESTION: Who will start at QB for the Vols? Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens were both shaky at best last season, but are competing for the spot this fall. The Vols intend to choose one of them this preseason and stick with him. But the question remains: Is either quarterback capable of doing a good job?

MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Kiffin spent much of the offseason taking verbal jabs at Florida and coach Urban Meyer. He and his new Tennessee team will get the first chance to back up all the talk on Sept. 19. The Vols travel to Gainesville to take on the Gators in what will be a highly publicized game. Will Kiffin's arrival help re-energize a rivarly that has been one-sided of late? We'll see.

FORECAST: Third in SEC East

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