"I just wanted to watch the show, and I ended up being in the show. It was a big surprise."
Eric Berry's superior play as a rookie was an even bigger surprise. He led the Vols in pass breakups (9) and interceptions (5), while leading the entire SEC in interception-return yardage (222). He ranked third among UT defenders in primary tackles (57), fourth in total tackles (86) and fourth in big plays (11).
"I think he had a very, very fine freshman year," defensive coordinator John Chavis notes. "We asked him to do a lot – probably more than we have any other freshman – and I think he responded well. Now he needs to fine-tune his game and get in a position where he can be a dominant player. He made a lot of plays for us last year but he's certainly got an opportunity to improve his game and take it to the next level."
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Berry is that the 5-11, 205-pounder from Fairburn, Ga., has scarcely begun to scratch his potential.
"There was some good coaching going on but last year he played more on ability than anything else," Chavis says. "Now he's got to take that, play great technique and play great assignment football. With the ability he's got, he's got a long way he can go, as far as improving his game. "
Appearances to the contrary, Berry says his freshman year was far from idyllic. He started Game 1 at nickel back, then started Game 2 at strong safety. He switched to cornerback for Game 3, then moved back to safety for Game 4, staying there for the rest of the season. Trying to learn three positions was quite a task for a guy just four months removed from high school.
"The toughest thing last year was the beginning of the season, when I was moving from nickel corner to corner to safety – trying to feel out different positions and see what was going on," he recalls. "Once they had me set at safety, I was pretty much cool with that."
There's an old cliché that is worth repeating at this point: "Tough times don't last; tough people do." Berry survived the tough times and drew strength from them.
"I've become more mentally strong," he says. "A lot of things that come up this year probably won't faze me as much as they did last year because I went through it and bounced back. I'm grateful for last year, even though it was pretty rough."
Actually, 2007 was a rough year for the entire Vol secondary. Projected starters Morley and Roshaun Fellows were dismissed from the team last spring. Then knee injuries sidelined one starting cornerback (Antonio Gaines) in Game 2 and the other (Marsalous Johnson) in Game 7. The resulting patchwork secondary was burned repeatedly in September and October before jelling in November.
With seven of the top eight defensive backs of '07 returning for '08, Tennessee's secondary has gone from the team weakness to the team strength in one season. Berry expects good things from the defensive backfield but is not the type of person to make idle boasts.
"We haven't really proved anything yet, so it's hard to say what we're going to look like next year," he says. "Talent-wise, we look like we're going to be pretty good."
Barring injury, Berry is going to be a lot more than "pretty good" in 2008. He was excellent as a freshman, and he's determined to build on that success in the year to come.
"The big thing is consistency," he says. "Last year I'd make a big play, then I'd come back and get burned the next play. I'd say consistency is the big thing this season."
Meanwhile, Tennessee's coaches are seeking ways to consistently get the ball in Berry's hands. In addition to interception returns of 96 yards (vs. Florida), 61 and 37 yards (vs. Arkansas) last fall, he registered a 52-yard fumble return against South Carolina. Simply put, he's dynamic in the open field.
Phillip Fulmer knew that when he was recruiting Berry, which is why the Vols' head man promised to give him some action as a direct-snap tailback. With Berry starting every game in the secondary, however, fellow freshman Gerald Jones wound up getting all of the direct-snap tailback action last fall.
Berry admits he is still "very excited" about the prospect of playing some offense for the Vols. Still, he won't pout if the opportunity never arises.
"If it happens it happens. If it doesn't it doesn't," he said. "I just want to focus on defense. If Coach Fulmer does pull me over on offense that would be nice. But the way things are looking with Gerald Jones ... if it's not broke, don't fix it."