A one-time five-star prospect from Miami (Fla.) Palmetto Senior, Berry has battled a long list of injuries and a crowded depth chart for the past three seasons stretching back into high school. Now, with incumbent starter Dan Herron suspended for the first five games of the season, Berry finds himself entering the summer locked in a battle to assume those responsibilities when the 2011 campaign begins.
For those he suited up with during his last prep season, that opportunity means the world.
"It's a big inspiration," Wilfred Butler, who was a junior when Berry was a senior, told BuckeyeSports.com. "I brag about him all the time. It makes me want to do better."
As a senior, Berry rushed for around 700 yards but missed half the season with first a wrist injury, then a hamstring injury coupled with an injured groin. Still, the Panthers managed to advance to the second round of the state playoffs for the first time in 50 years with Butler and teammate Jeremy Williams picking up the slack in Berry's absence.
Williams gained around 700 yards while Butler, a diminutive back nicknamed "wee-wee" while checking in at 5-5, 140 pounds, finished with around 600 rushing and 200 passing yards after converting to the position from wide receiver. "Wee-wee" is currently trying to enroll at FCS school Bethune-Cookman to continue his football career.
"I wasn't able to get into a big school like Jaamal," he said. "It inspires me that someone from Palmetto made it to a big school and might be the starter. It's very inspirational."
Berry arrived in Columbus for the 2009 season but wound up taking a redshirt while battling a hamstring injury. Palmetto head coach Larry Coffey said it was not until he was back in Miami during spring break after the season that a trip to the chiropractor finally helped him move past the injury.
The season away from action, coupled with an arrest before his arrival in Columbus on a charge of marijuana possession that was later dropped, led to rampant speculation that Berry was unhappy within the program and wanted out. Coffey, who has kept in touch with his former player, said that was never the case.
"Because of his competitiveness he wanted to contribute to the success of the team and there was frustration because he wasn't playing," the coach said. "There might have been some (outside) awareness that he might have been a little bit frustrated and not from a selfishness standpoint. He said, ‘Coach, I just want to contribute to the success of the team.'
"We talked about it and told him I felt like the philosophy at Ohio State is you come in, you commit to the program and he was in a situation where he had to wait his turn because the guys in front of him were being productive."
Those feelings led to a meeting with running backs coach Dick Tressel, who urged Berry to use the time to gain a better overall understanding of the OSU offense. It is for that reason that Coffey said he feels Berry should be suited for a bigger role this season.
"He made a statement to me during one of our last conversations about how the total understanding of the position of running back with the checks and the blitz pickups and all these kids of things are second nature to him now," the coach said. "Now he's just playing football naturally."
That figures to help him this fall as he battles classmate Jordan Hall – who did not redshirt – and redshirt freshman Roderick Smith for the right to fill Herron's shoes. As a sophomore at Palmetto, Berry proved his wares as a reserve and captured the starting job during his junior year, rushing for a career-high 1,033 yards.
When Berry was healthy, his coach said he was a formidable back with a number of talents at his disposal.
"He's got the ability to stop and start and make you miss and accelerate," Coffey, a former running back, said. "He's strong and he can run through certain tackles. Once he gets into the secondary and he gets his shoulders squared up then guys in the secondary might have some problems because with his speed and quickness and his vision, he's going to make a lot of people miss tackles. He has the speed to go the distance."
Butler said Berry measured himself while in high school against cross-town rival Lamar Miller, who now plays for Miami (Fla.). In the Scout.com rankings, Miller checked in as the No. 7 running back in the nation – one spot ahead of Berry. Miller also took a redshirt but carried the ball 108 times for 646 yards and a team-high six touchdowns last season. Berry's 266 rushing yards on 32 carries were fourth-best for the Buckeyes and he added his first career touchdown.
"The way I feel it, I know he sees Lamar Miller on TV playing and doing good at U-M and I always felt like Jaamal was the best running back in the world coming out his senior year," Butler said. "To me, it means a lot to him to have that opportunity to play on a big team like Ohio State.
"Jaamal doesn't back down from the big pressure. He wants that big weight on him and wants to be in that spotlight with it shining and everybody depending on him."
When Herron returns, he will immediately become a part of the rotation in the backfield. Coffey's hope is that Berry puts himself into a position where the coaches can not keep him off the field.
"Some careers have been launched due to injuries or mistakes or situations that others have gotten themselves into," the coach said. "It's an opportunity that he's going to have to try to take advantage of.
"I know what his goals are and one of them is to be the starting running back at Ohio State. That's what he desires to do and that's what he's working toward."