Vols' Berry takes praise, Heisman hype in stride

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- It would have been easy for an All-American like Tennessee's Eric Berry to defy the leadership of a new coaching staff going into what is likely his last season with the Volunteers.

"He could have resisted," coach Lane Kiffin said. "But from day one he's been the first one in meetings, the last one to leave, always asking questions, always coming up to my dad's office trying to get better."

It's that kind of leadership and motivation, along with the junior safety's immense talent, that's behind the Tennessee staff's promotion of Berry for the Heisman Trophy.

Last week, Tennessee launched the berry4heisman.com Web site featuring Berry stats, videos and photos. The campaign includes billboards around Tennessee and even one in enemy territory in Florida, and a cell phone ring tone featuring the sound of Vol fans shouting "Eric Berry" was available for download from phonezoo.com.

He's the first Vol to be promoted for the Heisman since quarterback Peyton Manning in 1997. Manning finished second to Michigan's Charles Woodson, the only defensive back to have ever won the trophy. Tennessee's other two Heisman candidates -- tailback Johnny Majors in 1956 and quarterback Heath Shuler in 1993 -- also finished second.

"I can't imagine a guy more deserving of all the energy," Kiffin said. "Eric is such a great leader. It's hard to remember I think for all of us that he just finished his sophomore year. You feel like he's a five-year NFL vet or something because he's so professional by the way he goes about his business on and off the field."

On the field, Berry in 2008 posted a Football Bowl Subdivision-best seven interceptions, returning them for a single-season Southeastern Conference record 265 yards, earning him All-American and SEC defensive player of the year honors from The Associated Press.

He holds the SEC career record with 487 interception return yards and needs just 15 yards to become the NCAA career leader.

Berry has earned the respect of opposing players, like Florida quarterback and 2007 Heisman winner Tim Tebow, who picked the Tennessee safety when asked to name the best SEC player outside the Gators squad.

"That's a big compliment, just coming from him," Berry said, flashing a big grin. "I truly respect that guy, and I respect him for saying that. I never thought he would think of me like that, but that's pretty cool."

Kiffin said he's already counting on Berry skipping his senior season to enter the NFL draft but in the meantime is committed to making his star the best safety in America. That means the once-high school quarterback likely will stick to learning and administering coordinator Monte Kiffin's defense this season.

Berry took a few snaps behind center last season as Tennessee searched for an offensive identity, though little came of the plays. Instead, he earned his All-American credentials because of a penchant for picking off quarterbacks and administering hits in the open field.

Berry;s friends and teammates have kept Berry grounded, preventing the accolades from going to his head.

After Tennessee Berry picked off a pass to the end zone by Georgia's Matthew Stafford last season and returned it 54 yards, a highlight clip began circulating on the Internet. Berry's roommate, linebacker Savion Frazier, didn't have a problem picking the play apart.

"When I came to the sideline, Savion was like, 'All right, man, that was a good pick, but you let the quarterback tackle you. When we get home, we're getting in the front yard and we're working on your jukes, and then we're going to get you to the end zone," Berry recalled.