Take Eric Berry, Evan’s older brother. Though diagnosed in December with Hodgkin’s lymphoma — a cancer of the lymph nodes that threatens his career and his life – Eric approaches each day with a smile on his face and determination in his heart.
“He’s doing really good,” Evan said following Tuesday’s Vol practice. “He has three more treatments left. To be honest, I really don’t see it affecting him. He’s a very strong person, and he continues to keep it strong.”
A two-time All-America safety and the fifth player selected in the 2010 NFL Draft, Eric Berry’s courage is making life easier for himself, for twin brothers Evan and Elliott, and for their father, former Vol running back James Berry.
“It was obviously scary,” Evan recalled of Eric's cancer diagnosis. “But when I talked to him he wasn’t worried, so I wasn’t worried.”
Although his brother is never far from his thoughts, Evan’s primary focus this spring is earning playing time at safety, easily the strongest position on the Vol roster. Fifth-year senior Brian Randolph heads into the 2015 season with 34 career starts, and fellow senior LaDarrell McNeil has 31.The chief backup is rising sophomore Todd Kelly Jr., a gifted athlete who started three games last fall as a true freshman.
Dislodging one of these three is a daunting challenge but Evan Berry isn’t worried. He’ll prepare as diligently as possible, even if he is destined to spend another season waiting for the first-teamers to graduate.
“They might get hurt,” he said, “so you have to be ready, have that ‘next guy in’ mindset.”
Based on Saturday’s full-scale scrimmaging, Berry appears to be ready. He intercepted two passes thrown by first-team quarterback Joshua Dobbs.
When asked about the interceptions, Berry shrugged modestly and replied: “Knowing Coach (Mike) DeBord’s offense, and with the game slowing down a little bit, I kind of had a feel for where Dobbs was going to throw it, and I was just trying to make a play.”
Berry already has made enough plays this spring to capture the attention of his head coach.
“I think Evan’s playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Butch Jones told InsideTennessee. “He’s playing with a high level of consistency. He’s playing fast. He’s making split-second decisions. He’s breaking and driving on the football.
“The other thing I’ve been impressed with is Evan’s tackling. We’ve really challenged him with his open-field tackling, and so far he’s done a very good job with that. Not only is he getting the ball-carrier down, he’s playing aggressively, he’s playing instinctively and he’s playing with great explosiveness right now.”
Like most freshmen, Berry struggled to adapt to the speed of the college game in his rookie season. He has made huge strides in that area this spring.
“He’s seeing the game faster. It’s slowing down for him,” Jones said. “He still has a long way to go, as far as growth and development, but I can see the transformation starting to occur. He’s making better decisions; he’s making quicker decisions, as well.”
Berry concedes that he’s doing the right thing instinctively now, rather than having to think so much.
“I’m very comfortable,” he said. “When I came in last summer things were going fast and I was nervous, obviously. I knew it (scheme) but I didn’t know it how I was supposed to. Now that I do, it’s time to make plays.”
Actually, Berry made a bunch of plays last fall … on special teams. Assuming the kickoff-return duties after Devrin Young was injured at midseason, Berry posted a spectacular 29.5-yard average on 14 runbacks. Typically modest, he gave most of the credit to his blockers.
“Really, the key was just taking coaching and trusting the return,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I had no part of it, but it was my return team that sprung me for it and got me those yards.”
Still, Berry developed a lot of confidence as a return man last fall. He believes that swagger will help him as a safety this fall.
“A lot,” he said. “Special teams is one-third of the game, and I felt like if I can go out there and do that, I can do the same thing on defense.”
That would be asking a lot. Stuck behind three-year starters Randolph and McNeil, Berry probably faces another season contributing mostly on special teams. If so, he’ll accept his fate with a smile on his face and determination in his heart.
It’s the Berry way.
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