Berry Eager For 2009 Kickoff...And Return

Who will be first Bulldog to touch the football this season, and who will score the first touchdown? If a certain fellow gets his way and his wish, the answer to both questions will be: Leon Berry, on the very same opening play. "Going into this first game I told the Coach, if they block well on the first kickoff return I'll probably return it for a touchdown!"

Bold words. But then this is exactly the attitude Mississippi State expects of whomever is given the chance to field kickoffs, as well as punts, in 2009. It's also the mindset Berry takes into his Bulldog debut this weekend against Jackson State (Scott Field, 2:30, ESPNU). Mouthset, too.

"You've got to!" the junior grinned at reporter reactions to his strong talk and stronger confidence. "You've got to be crazy! You can't go in there just thinking about it, you've just got to do it. That's what I think about."

Naturally the designation of Berry, also a top rotation wide receiver, is based on more than just how he runs the jaws. The spring semester transfer can move his feet quite quickly, too, as proven in a stout junior college career with, by his accounting, "over 1,200 yards returning, like six touchdowns on punt returns" in two seasons. Yes, he understands this is not East Mississippi C.C. Sure, he knows that ten times as many sets of eyes will focus on him whenever that first kickoff or punt comes his way. And true, the folk coming from the opposite direction in different jerseys are a bit bigger and faster than what he was used to.

"So I'm going to be nervous my first time," he admits. "But when I get confident I should be real good. Because I know me, I never try to (just) catch the ball, I always tell myself the first man can't tackle me! So I'm hoping to do that!"

Coach Dan Mullen does, too, having said Monday that while the staff is still looking at a number of players for return game duties "I think Leon Berry is going to be the main guy." That was the case in spring training and the early, observable week of fall camp when Berry normally got the first chance to field kickoffs in drills. Maybe between now and Saturday, or perhaps once into the season, one of the hot-shot youngsters convinces the coach to give him the chance. "I feel comfortable we have some talented freshmen that have the ability to return for us, we'd like to get them some experience."

Still there's a higher level of comfort with Berry, based both on age and live experience. Junior college experience, but college ball all the same. And as the numbers denote, Berry does it well. If anything he enjoys this ‘crazy' role even more than his full-time responsibilities at wide receiver.

"Oh, I get excited about making a big play as a returner, because the crowd goes wild. Receiver, you practice that, but returning kickoffs and punts I mean that's something you've got to have your main focus on."

This shouldn't understate the expectations of Berry in a more typical offensive position. It didn't take long for the Griffin, Ga., native to climb the spring depth chart and stay there even after a minor camp injury. In August he was regularly in the first rotation and, at least the days folk were allowed to watch, the most consistent of that trio. Not that Mullen and staff are satisfied with what this corps has accomplished in camp overall, understand, thus wideout is one of the serious concerns going into the season. But this puts a premium on experienced hands (literally) like Berry as the Bulldogs settle on a gameplan.

This wideout is ready to rotate as needed. For that matter he's comfortable, now, with plans to alternate passers, even if this is a big change for Berry personally. "In junior college we one stable quarterback, it was just that good and we never rotated. So I've never been in a position where I'm getting balls from two quarterbacks. So I'm trying to work that out." The good news is, he says the top two triggermen are working out in their own ways these days.

"Chris Relf is a lot bigger and a lot stronger so he puts a lot of heat on the ball. Tyson Lee is just that smart kid, he puts touch on the ball and puts it in the right position, whatever."

Speaking of right position, though, there's no question where Berry likes lining up best. He loves dropping back all by his lonesome in deep return and waiting for the pigskin. A running back/cornerback in high school, it was upon arrival at Scooba, Miss., that he began to really thrive given a chance to field kicks. In fact his favorite moment came at the expense of a fellow Bulldog, when he ran back a punt against fellow juco transfer Heath Hutchins the night EMCC played Itawamba CC.

"Yeah, that was great! They were trying to punt the ball away from me the whole game, so I ended up lining up close to the sideline. Heath kind of hung it and it came right to me, that was my chance. The blocking wall was set up right so I ran it back." Hutchins recalls the play all-too-painfully himself as he ended up the last ICC man between Berry and four accompanying blockers and the goal line. He got a piece of Berry at the five yard line but not enough to prevent the score. "He's the only guy on the team I let talk trash to me," Hutchins now laughs, sort-of.

Sort-of, because this fall features five Dogs who in 2008 were playing with or against each other in the Mississippi junior college ranks. Berry didn't get to run anything back on Sean Brauchle (Gulf Coast CC) in their game. "I got one return, the opening kickoff, after that he was kicking it deep in the end zone!" Brauchle and Chris White do have the ultimate one-up on the others, though, with their juco National Championship rings.

And though they're soon to open a season in the Southeastern Conference, expect all these juniors—along with 2008 classmate Phillip Freeman—to keep close tabs on the state juco standings all fall long. "I was talking to Chris White about that the other day," Berry said, "Gulf Coast is playing Scooba in a couple weeks and we kind of made a little bet—all fun and games!"

But then it's about to be real work in real games, and Berry has to be entirely serious about the opening challenge in store. No, Jackson State isn't from the league, but Berry has gotten a good look at the athletes who wear blue-and-white and is rightly respectful. Especially of the guys he'll try to out-run and out-wit in his routes. "I know Jackson State's corners and safeties are all seniors, it ain't going to be easy."

Not even for a fellow who likes to make catching and running with kicks sound easy. Oh, and that boast about not fair-catching balls? Wellllll… "Yeah, I'll probably have one! It's the SEC man, a different story!"


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