The Berry factor

Just 21 college games into his college career he has 10 interceptions and a school-record 397 return yards. Now everyone expects a big play from him every game ... even Tennessee secondary coach Larry Slade.

Can Vol safety Eric Berry turn the Tide with a game-changing play tonight against second-ranked Alabama? It wouldn't surprise Big Orange fans. It wouldn't surprise Slade, either.

"If Eric is out there and they're throwing the ball around, we expect him sooner or later to make a football play," Slade said. "If they're running the football we expect him – and it's his expectation, too – to stone somebody."

To "stone somebody" is to make a hit so jarring that the recipient is slow getting to his feet. Berry hammered Georgia's Knowshon Moreno so hard earlier this month that Moreno took himself out of the game.

Whether Berry is picking off a quarterback or stoning a ball-carrier, his electrifying plays tend to fire up his fans and his teammates. As Slade noted: "That helps you from an emotional standpoint, when those kind of things are happening – whether it's a big play to ignite you or a big hit to get you going."

Only a sophomore, Berry recently made the Sporting News Mid-Season All-America team. He is playing better than any safety in college football ... maybe better than any DEFENDER in college football. With a 5-11, 205-pound frame and 4.4 speed, he is the total package athletically. His greatness goes much deeper than the physical, however.

"I think the thing that probably impresses me most is his work ethic – not just on the field, but off the field," Slade said. "He's prepared, and I think that's a big deal. I've had guys that may have been more athletic but didn't make as many plays.

"Eric makes a lot of plays because he's prepared. He sees things, he expects things to happen. He recognizes formations and tendencies. His work off the field is what I'm impressed with."

In addition to the impact he has on games, Berry has tremendous impact on his fellow defensive backs (who rally around him) and on opposing offenses (who tend to direct their plays away from him).

"I think as an opposing offense, you want to know where he is," Slade said. "As far as our team is concerned, I think people want to emulate him. Even if it's not a guy's nature, if he sees Eric making a big hit and he gets an opportunity to do the same thing, then he tries to do the same thing.

"I think that's the impact: He gets people around him better."

With second-ranked Alabama in town, Berry and the people around him need to be at their best tonight.

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