Buried without Berry

Assessing high school football players is one of the toughest jobs in the world. College coaches routinely make mistakes. So do respected recruiting services such as Scout.com.

Sometimes, though, the talent scouts get it right. A prime example: Eric Berry.

Rated Scout.com's No. 1 cornerback prospect as a senior at Creekside High School of Fairburn, Ga., Berry lived up to the hype in his first year as a Tennessee Vol. Heading into Tuesday's Outback Bowl game with Wisconsin, he already is viewed as one of the program's very finest players.

No wonder. The 5-11, 205-pounder started all 13 regular-season games in 2007 – one at nickel back, one at cornerback and 11 at strong safety. He finished first among Vol defenders in interceptions (5), pass breakups (9) and fumble recoveries (2). He ranked second in solo tackles (55), fourth in total tackles (83) and fifth in big plays (10). He also set a program record with 222 interception-return yards.

Word of Berry's exploits spread far beyond Big Orange Country, too. He was named second-team All-SEC by the league's coaches and is a lock to make every Freshman All-America squad.

Asked how he would characterize Berry's progress as a rookie, Phillip Fulmer answered without hesitation.

"Phenomenal, from where he started," the Vols' head man said. "Coming out of Creekside High School, he obviously was a real good player. But to adjust as quickly as he did and play as physically as he did, particularly when we finally got settled in around the injuries, he just got better and better and better.

"I've said this before: He's not one of the best freshmen in the country; he's one of the best defensive backs in the country … period … as a freshman."

Where Tennessee's secondary would be without Berry is difficult, and unpleasant, to imagine. The Vols lost Demetrice Morley and Roshaun Fellows to preseason dismissals, then lost starting corners Antonio Gaines (Game 2) and Marsalous Johnson (Game 7) to season-ending knee injuries. Berry's stellar play kept the bottom from falling out in the midst of such chaos.

"We knew he was a phenomenal athlete during recruiting," defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "We knew he had a chance to be an impact player, and he certainly hasn't done anything to disappoint us.

"Obviously, he has the athletic ability, the character – he's a tremendous, tremendous young man – and he possesses great knowledge. He's really savvy and smart. He's a natural. It would've been hard for us to make the turn, particularly with the injuries we had, without having him."

Berry is remarkably talented. He's remarkably tough. He's remarkably bright. And he's remarkably mature for a first-year college player.

"He really is for a freshman," Chavis said. "He's a leader. He's gained the respect of his teammates. They don't look at him as a freshman. He's mature beyond his age, and certainly you can't say enough good things about him."

Although only a freshman, Berry already is one of Tennessee's most respected players. His teammates hold him in the same high regard that his fans do.

"The key to it is his willingness to go out and prepare," Chavis said. "That's where you earn your teammates' respect is on the practice field. Certainly, he has shown up on the game field. His stats speak for themselves. But you earn their respect on the practice field, and he's done a great job of that."

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