Head coach Butch Jones decided it would be cool to pit twins Evan and Elliott Berry against one another in a drill that closely resembles two young rams butting heads to see who flinches.
With teammates forming a circle around the combatants (hence the drill’s name) reporters couldn’t tell who won the brother-against-brother confrontation. And, if the Berrys know, they aren’t telling.
“I don’t know,” Evan said. “You might have to ask Coach that. He (Elliott) kind of got me at the beginning but I held my own at the end.”
Unlike the Williams sisters in tennis, the Berry brothers have no reservations about head-to-head competition. Evan (5-feet-11, 199 pounds) and Elliott (6-feet, 208 pounds) have been squaring off for years.
“Growing up, we’ve been very competitive,” Evan said. “We already knew Coach was putting us together, so we kind of prepared for it. On the field there’s no friends: I try my best to beat him and he tries his best to beat me.”
So, in a competitive situation, he wouldn’t even take it easy on his brother?
“Not even him,” Evan said, flashing a soft grin.
Fortunately, the Berry twins are not competing for the same job. Whereas Evan is practicing at cornerback and safety, Elliott is working exclusively at weakside linebacker after a brief stint at nickel back.
“I feel linebacker is the most comfortable,” he said. “I was at nickel the first two or three days of practice but I didn’t really feel comfortable. I feel like I’m more natural at linebacker.”
Elliott’s comfort level might be a little higher except for one thing: Jones barks at him more than any other player each day in practice.
“I’m on him every single snap,” Jones admitted. “Why? Because we need his development. We’re trying to jump the learning curve to get this football team ready in a hurry.”
Elliott’s reaction to the daily verbal barrage is mixed.
“I think it’s great but sometimes it’s a little overwhelming,” he said. “I could be way over on the other field when I do something, and he’ll see it. And, with that microphone he has at practice, it’s like the whole city of Knoxville hears it. It’s kind of overwhelming but at the same time I’m just glad he sees something in me to push me to work harder.”
The attention from Jones truly is a backhanded compliment. If he didn’t think Elliott Berry is capable of making an immediate contribution the coach wouldn’t be pushing him nearly so hard.
“That’s right,” Elliott conceded with a nod. “I feel kind of honored that he would use that much energy to kind of get me going.”
Helping Elliott cope with Jones’ daily harangues is his roommate/brother/confidant. Having Evan in the same dormitory room is a real benefit.
“We share a room with Josh Malone and Michael Sawyers,” Elliott said. “The biggest thing is, it’s kept me from getting homesick. We talk about football a lot but when we’re at home we just talk about regular old teenage kids’ stuff.”
Evan agreed that having his brother in the same dorm room is a tremendous asset.
“It definitely helps,” he said. “I see a lot of players that are homesick, don’t have anyone close to talk to in person. I’m blessed to have my brother here in school with me. Whatever I need to talk about, I grab him and we talk.”
Since the Berrys grew up in the same home, choosing to go their separate ways after high school would’ve been understandable. Apparently, that was never a consideration.
“Not at all,” Elliott said. “That wasn’t even an option. We didn’t want our parents to have to go to two different games in one week. It’s already hard on them to pick whether they want to see my brother (Eric) play (for the Kansas City Chiefs) or they’re going to see us play. It would’ve been even worse if we were at two different colleges.
“I couldn’t even picture it.”
That kind of unselfishness is typical of the Berry family. Eric was on the verge of breaking Tennessee’s record for interception return yardage heading into his junior year (2009) but agreed to play in the box, providing extra run support while simultaneously surrendering his chance to set the interception-returns record.
Whereas Eric was so talented that he started as a true freshman, Evan and Elliott may have to wait a while. The defense Tennessee plays in 2014 is a little more complex than the one it played when Eric was a rookie in 2007, so Evan and Elliott face a steeper learning curve.
“They’re doing a good job,” defensive coordinator John Jancek said, “but they’re raw. They’re learning our standards. They’re learning our scheme. They’re not able to play full speed right now because of everything that’s going on – not only with the defense and the calls and the communication on every single play but also the fact our offense is going fast.
“That deteriorates your accuracy, deteriorates your communication. The guys are just trying to survive. They don’t have enough knowledge and experience to elevate their game in those situations, so they’re learning how to practice, learning how to communicate and learning life as a college football player.”
Evan may get on the field before Elliott because he is heavily involved in special teams, which provide a quicker opportunity for freshmen to contribute.
“I’m on all special teams except field goal,” Evan said. “I’m trying to make an impact. If I can make important plays or force other people to make important plays it’ll bring energy to the offense or defense.”
Evan is an “up man” on punt returns, meaning he could be fielding short punts. He also is competing to be a return specialist on kickoffs.
“It’s a little bit more challenging,” he said, adding that return-game coach Robert Gillespie “likes me but says I have a couple of things to work on.”
Whether he’s fielding kickoffs or making tackles on the coverage units, Evan is excited about the opportunity to contribute immediately on special teams.
“Most definitely,” he said. “People forget that special teams is one-third of the game. It’s still football, and I just want to get out there and play football, so I don’t mind that special-teams role.”
Likewise, he doesn’t mind following his older brother, even though Eric was a three-year starter, a two-time first-team All-American and a first-round NFL Draft pick.
“Really, I don’t think of it much,” Evan said. “That’s my brother’s compliments. If I don’t live up to my standards, whatever he did won’t matter. I’m out there on the field now and he’s not, so I’m just getting myself ready.”
Even if “getting ready” involves facing his twin in the circle of life drill.