Berry the 'bafety'

One Saturday this fall Tennessee football fans just might hear Neyland Stadium public address announcer Bobby Denton bellow: "And, starting at bafety ... Eric Berry."

That's no typographical error. After earning All-America honors as a sophomore strong safety in 2008, Eric Berry is playing a hybrid 'backer/safety position in 2009.

"I really don't know what that position's called," the 5-11, 205-pound junior said earlier today. "I think it's bafety or something like that."

Whatever you call it, it's an intriguing concept. Berry rarely lines up in the same spot two plays in a row.

"As you see him moving all around, it's harder to take him away," Vol head coach Lane Kiffin said. "It's harder to know where he's at."

There is a significant downside to Berry's new role, however. After returning 12 interceptions for 487 yards (15 off the NCAA career record) in his first two years as a Vol, he has just one interception and zero return yards this fall. That's because he plays closer to the line of scrimmage and has more run-support responsibilities than he did previously.

Naturally, some observers wonder why the NCAA's premier pass interceptor isn't playing a position more conducive to intercepting passes.

"It's easy to say, 'Put him back there and maybe he's going to make some interceptions back there,'" Kiffin conceded. "But if I'm on offense and I know where he's at, the ball's not going to go over there. When he's in so many different areas it's hard to stay away from him."

Although Berry isn't intercepting a lot of passes, he's making a lot of tackles in his new bafety role. He registered 10 vs. UCLA, 11 vs. Florida and 16 vs. Auburn last weekend.

"You look at it and he had 16 tackles in the game," Kiffin said. "On top of that he's our gunner on punts and our L-1 on kickoffs, so we're using him a ton of different ways."

Still, putting your best pass defender in a position where he's primarily a run stopper seems to be a waste of manpower. Kiffin insists it isn't.

"You've got to stop the run," the head man said. "If you put him back there (deep in the secondary), we wouldn't be playing nearly as good in run defense as we have this year."

You'd think that a guy with career averages of one interception every two games and nearly 41 yards per return would miss the thrill of running back a pick. Berry says he doesn't.

"No. You think about it but right now we're making plays on defense," he said. "If I'm in the box making tackles or I'm getting the quarterback to throw away from me, I feel like that's enough for me to do. Basically, if we're doing good on defense and winning, I'm fine with it."

Berry still gets to defend the occasional pass. He just isn't as active in that part of the game as he used to be.

"I'm still a little involved in the passing game; I'm just a guy that's pretty much in the run sense also," he said. "I've spent a lot of time with Coach Kiffin (defensive coordinator Monte) learning where I'm supposed to be in the box."

Because his new position is more linebacker than safety, Berry routinely picks the brains of Vol 'backers Rico McCoy and Nick Reveiz.

"Those guys have been getting me up to speed," he said. "I'm pretty much like another linebacker down there but he (Monte) still puts me in man coverage and stuff like that."

Berry nearly picked up his 14th career interception last Saturday vs. Auburn. A deflected pass was fluttering to the ground in his vicinity but he was unable to reel it in.

"I was going to lay out for it," he recalled, "but I saw Dennis (Rogan) with my peripheral vision and I didn't know if he was going to dive for it or not. That would've been an ugly collision, head to head."

Berry played most of the 2008 season with a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. He's pain-free so far in 2009.

"I'm feeling good," he said. "I think a lot of the credit should go to Coach Ausmus (strength coach Aaron) and the training room also.... If I didn't get the surgery I don't think I'd be able to play the position I'm playing right now."

And the word "bafety" might never become a part of the modern vernacular.

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