Berry Finding The Right Route In Summer Work

He had already made his senior college choice before the change in coaches. Still when Leon Berry heard who Mississippi State had hired, and what offense Dan Mullen favored, well… "Oh, I was ready to sign. If they'd given me the papers right then I would have signed. And it's lived up to what I hoped."

So far, so has Berry himself. The standout from East Mississippi CC earned a place in the receiver rotation for the coming season with a solid spring showing. And now Berry is looking to strengthen his status over the course of this off-season. Though ‘off' is very much a relative term given what these June-semester Dogs are doing.

"We're just going to use this summer to try to get bigger, stronger, and faster," Berry reports. "I mean, we throw with the quarterbacks almost every day trying to get the timing down and having the right routes." Yes, receivers do toss the ball, though mostly back to the designated passer. Berry doesn't have a bad arm himself but then he knows where he fits in the pitch-and-catch equation.

"Well, we've basically been doing routes, just running routes and stuff. But the coach just wants us to get the timing down and get the ball right at the break." And then ‘breaking' the play for a better gain, even if for now it's only against imaginary defenders. Though running and catching and running some more is demanding enough duty given the week's temperatures, not helped by a Tuesday downpour that has lent a distinctly tropical air to campus.

Berry probably wouldn't care if he had to run his summer-routes while dodging hailstones. That's how excited he is about the opportunity to operate at this level of the game. "I love it. I wanted to play in the SEC, big-time ball, and coming here is like a dream."

Though, he admits, there were times in his first State spring practices were not a happy sort of dream. Running and catching, that he's never had any problems with. Detailed and technical assignments, now, that's a more challenging matter.

"This spring was working on a lot of routes. In junior college we didn't run that many routes, I mean we ran out of base and ran screens and stuff. But now I have to work on my steps, my footing, everything." And this spread-system he was so eager to sign-on for? "Oh, the offense!" Berry smiles, somewhat ruefully. "The plays and stuff, yeah the whole offense. It was kind of hard."

And know what the hardest part was? There were times when the practice-huddle broke and this receiver was still trying to figure out exactly what he had just been told to do. Not from lack of attention, mind; it's that this year Bulldogs wideouts are being asked to learn an entirely different ‘language' in how plays are signaled form the sideline and then translated in the huddle.

"In junior college we used basic numbers, you know?" said Berry. "Here we have to use cards, numbers, cities, states, and everything!" Fortunately he's been learning to savvy this particular lingo with further informal summer sessions. And as a record spring-game crowd saw, when this receiver is on the same page with his passer good things happen.

"Yeah, I had nine catches for like 125 (yards)," Berry said. Including a signal-sending beginning to the Maroon team's successful day. "Before the snap Tyson (Lee) had told me look, Berry, I'm coming to you the first play. I said OK, just throw it up and I'll try to get it! That's what happened and we went on from there." Needless to note Berry would like to have his number called first on opening day against Jackson State this September. "I'm hoping so, that's what I want."

He's also hoping to just be on-field for the opening offensive play. See, despite his starring turn in the spring game and steady performance the rest of camp—this despite a banged-up shoulder that had him practicing more often in a yellow than maroon shirt—when the summer depth chart came out Berry was listed second at ‘X' receiver. Brandon McRae, who covered more ‘miles' on the exercise bike than on cleats while recovering from that broken right leg, was first-team.

Now this sort of depth chart is almost entirely nominal at all receiver spots. Still, "It's kind of worried me a little while, because I did real well in the spring," Berry said. "I know B-Mac is good but he hasn't practiced, when I looked like that I was like, man! But we talked to Coach Mullen about it and he said since we run the spread we'll have to split reps up at ‘X.'" Besides, Berry adds, maybe the coaching staff got tired of listening to McRae's chattering and put him first to keep some summer peace!

More seriously, Berry said he's learning how to do some talking himself. Any respectable receiver knows the value of verbal jousting with his defensive counterparts but now in the big leagues Berry has to pump up the volume.

"Yeah, you've got to use a little mouth. You've got to use a little talk. When they walk up and press me I tell them that's an insult to me, all the time. I mean, walking up to try to press me? That's an insult. And I love it! It motivates me."

The fact is as a rotation-regular Berry has the additional responsibility of setting a tone for the whole group. Practice, play, whatever. Because the Bulldog corps is very much a bunch in transition; only two true wideouts have caught a live-game pass. McRae of course led the bunch last fall with 51, while sophomore Delmon Robinson grabbed a dozen balls. And that is all the statistical experience State has to show going into August camp competition.

Plus, the list of available bodies at X, Z, and H was often limited by injuries and recoveries. Thus Berry had to keep working on the tender shoulder and risk it again in the spring game. But then a juco receiver is signed to play, especially a mid-year transfer, and Berry recognized the responsibility.

"I came in and I knew that they had some good guys, but I knew they had a lot of young guys too. So I had to come in and try to be a leader and whatever. It was a tough spring, I tried to give my all and make my family happy." Not to mention his new ‘family' of head coach Mullen and passing game coordinator Mark Hudspeth. There were days when some tough, umm, love was in order but fortunately not too many or too often.

"Yes, I just needed a push. I mean, the coaches love-up on you and they're good coaches. They'll yell at you when they have to! But the guys are real nice." Demanding, too, as all wideouts are told to learn all three positions since Mississippi State plans on playing anything from one to five receivers depending on situation and opportunity.

"Coach said that's the only way you're going to get on the field, you have to know all the positions because what if somebody goes down and you have to fill-in for them?" Berry says. His own best position is outside at ‘X' but he made himself productive out of the slot and running inside. Of course Berry is continuing to hone his skills at both, as well as on either side of the quarterback. Speaking of which, how does the receiver evaluate his passers?

"T-Lee, man, he's been here for two years so you expect more from him. He's doing a real good job. And I'm surprised at Tyler Russell, the first ball he threw when a dude was running a fade he dropped it right in his arms, I think it was about 50 yards. And Chris Relf has a rocket, when I'm going with Chris I have to put my gloves on! With Tyson I can go with gloves or not. We've got to get used to everybody. The way we're doing it now I haven't caught too many balls from Chris but I'd like to because I know he's going to get some reps. And he's a runner, a big guy!

Of course if he has his wish and way, Berry is going to be a big part in the 2009 gameplan, along with a whole cohort of capable catchers. The experience and the stats might not be there for outsiders to read, but all who've seen this group practice—and have an idea what several July-arriving freshmen bring to campus—are upbeat over the outlook.

"I feel we can get it done, we've got a lot more receivers," Berry says. "And we're trying to get better. The way we're working now, and they way that the defense is now, I think we've got a pretty good shot at it."

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