Berry's one fruitful Vol

Tennessee's most dynamic offensive weapon may be a defensive player.

You can make a pretty good case that no Vol is more dangerous with the football in his hands than sophomore safety Eric Berry, who returned an interception 72 yards for a touchdown that ignited a 21-0 fourth-quarter explosion in Saturday night's 34-3 drubbing of Mississippi State.

The 5-11, 205-pound speedster now has 397 interception-return yards for his career, breaking the old SEC record of 379. Considering that Berry achieved this distinction in just 1½ seasons is somewhat mind-boggling. So is the fact he is averaging 39.7 yards per return on 10 picks. Granted, he's eluding offensive players who are unaccustomed to making tackles. Still, Berry's numbers suggest he is a touchdown threat every time he touches the football.

Naturally, Tennessee's head coach would love for Berry to touch the football several times each game. Phillip Fulmer says he is working toward that end.

"We would very much like to (get Berry more touches)," the head man said. "We had a couple of plays in that we fooled with (in practice) during the course of the week."

The obvious problem: Berry also is the most dynamic player on a Tennessee defense that desperately needs his hard-nosed run support and his quality coverage skills. Thus, borrowing him from the defense – even for a few plays – is a tough call.

"When the defense has to play as many plays as they've been playing (81 last weekend at Georgia), it's very difficult to take him away," Fulmer said. "He's also on several special-teams units."

Tennessee reduced Berry's participation on special teams Saturday night and may reduce it further in the weeks ahead. By asking him to do less covering kickoffs and punts, the coaches are hopeful he can do more in ball-carrying situations.

"We're looking at him a little bit on offense," Fulmer noted, "and certainly as a punt returner, as well."

As always, Berry was noncommittal Saturday night when asked about the prospect of playing some on offense.

"That's up to the offensive guys (coaches)," he said. "Right now I'm just focusing on what I can offer to the team from a defensive standpoint."

A leading candidate for the Lott Trophy as college football's premier defensive player, Berry is so respected by his teammates that they recently elected him a team captain as a mere sophomore.

"It feels really good to be seen as a captain for my teammates," he said. "Me only being 19 and having grown men looking up to me to lead them in a football game makes me feel a lot better about how much I'm respected and how much respect I have for those guys."

One reason the Vols hold Berry in such high regard is that his talent is matched by his camaraderie. Despite his high profile, he is the ultimate team player. He says credit for the SEC interception-return record must be divided 11 ways.

"As far as breaking the record," he said, "I feel like it's a team record, as well as an individual record. We're getting great pressure up front, week in and week out and I'm getting great blocking down the field when I get the interception ... or when ANYBODY gets the interception. I feel like that's a good part of the record being broken."

Tennessee's fans may have even more respect for Berry than Tennessee's players. At one point Saturday night they began chanting "Berry, Berry, Berry." That had to be a goose-bump moment.

"Just the crowd chanting your name ... that's more like a dream," he said. "I can't really imagine that happening. I had to pinch myself during the game to see if it was really happening."

Clearly, Berry is a special player and an equally special person. Tennessee is blessed to have him.

"He's a great competitor," Fulmer said. "He's obviously got tremendous ability. He's got that inner drive to be the best he can be. Whether he's making a tackle or playing coverage, he's an unbelievable young man (who possesses) character, work ethic ... all of the things that make the great ones great."

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