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Pitt cornerback Berry seeks next level

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Aaron Berry has known LeSean McCoy since he was 5 years old. The two starred on the same Harrisburg, Pa., high school team. They talked about their dreams to play in the NFL as long as Berry can remember.

So when McCoy opted to enter next month's draft after being projected as a high-round pick, Berry had all the motivation he needed.

"I want to make me some money, too," he said. "I want to go out and show what I can do this year."

Pittsburgh's senior cornerback has two words posted all over his room: consistency and finish. He believes those are the keys for him to rise from very good college player to can't-miss pro prospect.

There's no reason Berry shouldn't be among the best or even the premier cornerback in the Big East this season. After all, stars like Cincinnati's Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith, Connecticut's Darius Butler and West Virginia's Ellis Lankster are all gone. Berry is a three-year starter who was named second team all-conference last season.

"He has great feet, great change of direction, the fast twitch you need to play corner and very good instincts," Pitt secondary coach Jeff Hafley said. "He's so talented athletically. Now he just needs to put it all together.

Berry and his coach will tell you that all that potential hasn't been fulfilled over a full season yet. During the first half of last season, teams were able to throw Berry's way, culminating in the disastrous 54-34 loss to Rutgers when the Scarlet Knights passed for 371 yards and six touchdowns. He also had a key fumble on a punt return that stymied a second-half comeback attempt.

The defeat was nowhere near all Berry's fault, and Rutgers torched several Big East teams through the air in 2008. But it became a turning point for him and the team.

"I felt that game was on me," he said.

Pitt's pass defense toughened the second half of the season, and Berry earned his all-league honors down the stretch. Two of his three interceptions came in the Panthers' final two games, and only one of their final five opponents managed to reach 300 yards passing.

"His last four games were excellent," Hafley said. "If he can start this season where he left off, the sky's the limit for that kid."

Hafley has repeated the word "finish" into Berry's ears ever since the end of last season. He says that Berry almost always has perfect coverage and is in spots where he can make a big play. Now he needs finish more of them off with a pass break-up, interception or key tackle. Hafley told Berry that no receiver should make a catch on him in practice, not even budding star Jonathan Baldwin.

"I'll be in the right position, but sometimes I get lackadaisical and I don't want to finish," he said. "That's what I have to do in order to get to the next level. That's what the scouts are looking for."

All but that every-down consistency is in place. Berry exudes the confidence that any cornerback worth his salt needs. When asked if he felt he could cover any receiver in the Big East, he replied, "Oh, definitely. Not just the Big East, but any receiver in the country."

And though he's average-sized for a corner at a listed 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, Berry can bring the thunder.

"He's not the biggest kid in the world, but he's tough and he will tackle," Hafley said. "I remember two years ago at West Virginia, he made two open-field tackles on Steve Slaton when it looked like Slaton was gone. But he got him down."

Toward the end of last season, Berry said he started buckling down harder in practice and spending more time in the film room. Hafley has noticed him asking more questions this spring and paying closer attention to detail.

Berry knows this is his last go-round at Pitt. And if he wants to get to where his childhood friend McCoy is going, it's now or never.