Not bitter about Berry

He knows he is a good football player. He also knows that many Tennessee fans are hoping he loses his first-team job between now and the Sept. 1 opener at Cal.

Sophomore Marsalous Johnson has the misfortune to be competing for a starting job against the Vols' most heralded freshman. Eric Berry of Fairburn, Ga., was rated the No. 1 cornerback prospect in all of high school football last fall. That trumps the fact that Johnson won the Andy Spiva Award as Tennessee's most improved defensive player last spring and entered preseason drills as the No. 1 right cornerback.

To his credit, Johnson is handling all of the hype surrounding Berry with maturity and poise. When asked whether he or Berry deserves to start Game 1, Johnson wisely ducked the loaded question.

"It could be anybody," he said. "We're all good players. It just depends on who they (coaches) believe can go out there and make plays."

Berry has been splitting first-team repetitions in practice with Johnson at right corner but also poses a threat to senior Antonio Gaines at left corner. Johnson believes the Vols will have two quality cornerbacks in the starting lineup, no matter who winds up relegated to backup duty.

"I have confidence in Antonio and I have confidence in Eric," he said. "We're a unit and we play as a team. If they start, I'm going to have confidence they can get it done. I'm sure if I start, they'll have confidence I can get it done."

Berry got the first snaps with the No. 1 defense in last Tuesday's final preseason scrimmage but Johnson wasn't at all upset.

"It was just the rotation," he said. "I was in there first last time."

Johnson, Gaines and Berry have performed very well this preseason. In full-scale scrimmage No. 1 Gaines had 3 tackles, an interception and a sack. Johnson contributed 3 tackles and a pass breakup, while Berry chipped in 2 tackles and an interception.

In scrimmage No. 2 Berry had 5 tackles and another interception. Johnson had 2 tackles and another pass breakup. Gaines had 1 tackle and 1 PBU. None of the three played enough in scrimmage No. 3 to make a play.

For what it's worth, the cumulative stats for the preseason scrimmages show Berry recording 7 tackles and 2 interceptions, Johnson recording 5 tackles and 2 pass breakups, Gaines 4 tackles, a sack, an interception and a PBU.

Regardless of who starts at corner, Johnson is convinced Tennessee's secondary will be solid in 2007.

"We worked very hard this summer on limiting big plays," he said. "You'll see a very small amount of big plays out there because we try hard to limit those."

Based on preseason, Tennessee's corners appear to be playing a little tighter coverage than in the past. They weren't giving the Vols' youthful receivers a whole lot of cushion.

"With the athletic DBs we have now, we believe we can get in their face and play with ‘em," Johnson said. "We're in shape, so we like to get in their face and play with ‘em."


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