Evan Berry doesn't feel irritated when teams kick away from him nowadays. It's actually quite the opposite.
"I wouldn't call it frustration," the sophomore said with a grin. "I take it as more of a compliment because if they don't kick it to me there's obviously some kind of fear they have."
Teams have been complimenting Berry more often than not this season after the 5-foot-11, 207-pounder established himself as the most dangerous kick returner in the nation. The Fairburn, Georgia, native came into Tennessee's game against Kentucky Saturday leading the country in both yards per kickoff return (38.73) and kickoff return yards per game (83). Kentucky wisely didn't give Berry many opportunities to show what he can do until the third quarter, when he caught a Wildcats' kickoff at the edge of the end zone and, just for a split second, thought about taking a knee.
But he knew that wouldn't do.
Berry took the kickoff and raced 100 yards upfield almost untouched to add both his third kickoff return touchdown of the season and an emphatic punctuation mark to the Vols' enormous win over the Wildcats.
"He had that look in his eye," coach Butch Jones said after the game. "He was going to bring it out regardless. We have a lot of confidence in him and our entire kickoff return unit. We invest so much time in that and every time we go out on the field to return a kick, whether it's punt return or kickoff return, everyone on our sideline expects a big play."
The touchdown tied Willie Gault's record for most kickoff return scores in a season and was the first 100-yard return for the Vols since Leonard Scott's in 1999.
"It means everything to me, a record held by Willie Gault, who actually played with my dad, knowing that he holds a record that hasn't been broken in 30 years is definitely a great feeling," Berry said.
The Vols' not-so-secret weapon now boasts 681 return yards on the season and is primed for his fair share of accolades when the year ends. Berry has helped make Tennessee's special teams one of the most complete units in the NCAA, ranking No. 1 in kickoff return yards per game at over 40 a pop and No. 16 in punt return yards per contest.
"They just give me the green light to do whatever," Berry said of the coaching staff. "We practice it enough and I know my decisions and how to judge the ball."
Tennessee practices it so much, in fact, that it almost seems automatic when he trots onto the field. Berry averages just two returns a game, but each time the ball falls into his hands, his teammates don't just hope for great things to happen.
They expect them.
"I know whenever Evan is back there and he gets the chance to catch the ball, field it, with an opportunity to come out, I call 'Touchdown' every time," running back Alvin Kamara said. "Whenever I start to see him go for it I just say, `Touchdown.' I expect it from him. We celebrate, but I expect it from him every time."