Berry improves play, grades en route to stardom

Jaamal Berry, 5-foot-10, 190 pounds
ESPN 150 Watch List running back
Miami Palmetto High School

Since grade school, ESPN 150 Watch List running back Jaamal Berry (Miami/Palmetto) has dreamed of gridiron success and playing on Sundays.

Although he looks to be on his way, one of nation's most highly-coveted backs almost had those dreams snatched away early in his career. The physical skills have always been present, but it took some time, maturity and major bumps in the road for this highly-coveted back to realize the direct correlation academics had on fulfilling his football aspirations.

"I kind of lived in a fantasy world my freshman year," Berry said. "I didn't know the importance of grades and was just content on being the star of my park league team."

Berry opted to continue playing for his youth team as a ninth-grader in the fall of 2005, instead of carrying the rock for the Palmetto freshman team. He admits longing to remain the star and enjoying the laid-back atmosphere of the youth level. Although he tore up opposing defense, Berry failed to open his freshman math or English books. Berry had no academics parameters, monitoring or real accountability. As a result, he dug himself into a very deep academic hole.

The Miami speedster actually didn't realize the academic disaster he was in until meeting his current head coach Larry Coffey during the winter of his freshman year. New to the school, Coffey saw Berry's elite speed around the gymnasium of Palmetto high school and he heard about the park league legend's amazing skills as a runner.

"Coach Coffey just came up and asked me to play for the high school team the next year," Berry said. When I told him I wanted to, he went to check my grades."

Unfortunately, Coach Coffey didn't have great news the next time he saw the talented back.

"He simply told me if I wanted to play for Palmetto high school as a sophomore and someday earn a college scholarship -- I had some major work to do academically," Berry said.

Some teenagers in this situation may have slept in the bed they made. Berry, however, was determined to learn from his mistakes and do whatever was necessary to play high school football and follow his dreams. To make up for the year's worth of substandard grades -- including multiple D's and F's -- Berry had a rigorous academic schedule placed in front of him that included extra tutoring sessions, summer school and even night classes. His sophomore fall schedule was quite demanding and challenging. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Berry was putting in 14 hour days at Palmetto if you count his two hours of practice.

"I would go to school all day, take a break for practice, a quick dinner and then go to class until 9:30 p.m.," Berry said.

Berry made the grades and had a productive sophomore season rushing for more than 500 yards. However, it was the following season that catapulted the Miami native into the highly sought-after national prospect he is today. Berry acknowledged he was aware his junior season was the most significant for recruitment purposes. Because of that, he wanted to impress recruiters on the field, not turn them away with his grades off it.

The chiseled 190-pounder said he stopped taking his talents for granted. When he wasn't studying to become academically qualified for college, he was preparing to open eyes as an electrifying running back. To get the required amount of work in to improve his football skills, Berry regularly worked out in the morning before school started. The inspired athlete ran to improve his speed and agility and hit the sled as the sun was rising to enhance his power. Berry's summers were spent with his trainer and mentor Robert Morales hitting the weights and running hills. The hard work paid off.

Last fall as a junior, Berry rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns. He showcased a style that was a combination of elite outside speed and deceptive in-line running strength. More importantly, he raised his GPA to a 2.3 by the end of his fall semester, and estimates he will be close to a 2.5 by the end of his junior year, an exponential improvement from his freshman report card.

Colleges indeed took notice; Berry has collected more than 10 scholarship offers to date. Berry's stock has risen more than any other back in the country this spring. Auburn, Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, LSU and South Carolina are among the programs interested in Berry's services. Despite the increased attention, Berry is determined to continue improving in school and the classroom.

"My coach has played running back in the pros and knows the game of football," Berry said. "He sat me down and told me what I still need to do to improve as a football player and reach my dreams. He still stays on me about my academics. I owe Coach Coffey a lot for giving me a chance."

However, the mature Berry is quick to point out his path was not necessarily the best route toward football stardom. He has some advice for other football prospects who don't feel academics are important.

"Hit the books, don't slack off and dig yourself into a big hole," Berry said. "If you have one bad year with grades it can be really hard to improve your GPA, even if you start doing well. When I first started getting A's and B's I thought my GPA was going to shoot up, but it doesn't, it takes awhile to improve."

Berry admitted he had never seen the 1993 movie "A Bronx Tale," starring and directed by Robert De Niro. In the film, De Niro plays a devoted father who stresses the importance of not wasting talent to his young, impressionable son. De Niro's character's mantra was: "There's nothing worse in life than wasted talent."

Berry concluded our conversation with a similar message.

"I want to be the best I can be and take full advantage of the skills I have been given. I have been told I could be the highest recruited football player ever out Palmetto, and don't want people to look back and say I wasted my talent."

Berry's Scouts Inc. Evaluation
JBerry is one of the more explosive backs in the class of 2009. He possesses elite acceleration and speed. Has a compact build and is layered with good bulk, particularly through his hips and lower body. Has rare initial burst and suddenness through the hole. Excels at changing speeds to make defenders miss. Runs low to the ground and with good lean, allowing him to pick and slide through traffic without exposing himself to big hits. Blends great vision, body control and lateral foot quickness to find and hit small cracks and cutback lanes decisively. Reaches top speed within steps and can quickly split the seam on the second level. Loses very little in transition when cutting at full speed, and shows great stop-start ability and jump-cut skills to make initial defenders miss. Flashes good lateral quickness when bouncing to the perimeter and has the speed and second gear needed to turn the corner and go the distance. Deceptive power separates him from typical speed back. Shows good balance, leg drive and second effort on contact. Will lower his shoulder and finish runs. Has the excellent short burst to run through arm tackles and generate momentum to drag the pile. Shows similar grit and lower-body strength in blitz pickups. He isn't afraid to absorb a hit in pass pro. Needs to continue adding bulk and strength to remain durable and productive after contact as an in-line college back. Needs to run with higher knees to avoid ankle tackles. His receiving skills need some polish. Expect recruiting to heat up for Berry, whose speed and combined ability in-line and outside are rare. He's a great prospect who should excel as a one-back in a zone-heavy scheme.

Billy Tucker is a recruiting coordinator for Scouts Inc. and has close to a decade of coaching experience at the college and high school level. Tucker has served as a recruiting coordinator for two nationally ranked Division II colleges. Most recently, he was the associate head coach and defensive coordinator for Merrimack College, which advanced to the Sweet 16 in the 2006 NCAA Division II playoffs.