Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Experts say picking Berry can bear fruit
INDIANAPOLIS - Monte Kiffin's answer was short and sweet. "He looked me in the eye," former Tennessee safety Eric Berry said of the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Volunteers defensive coordinator, "and told me I'd be a fool to come back (to college for a senior season)." Kiffin's former brethren in the NFL seem to agree. As the league's Scouting Combine neared its conclusion Sunday, most draft analysts had Berry rated as one of the best all-around players in this year's talent pool."He impacts the game," Rams general manager Billy Devaney said. "I think in everybody's mind he impacts the game. And that's what you want. You want impact players, and he's certainly one of them." Just how much Berry will eventually impact the draft is hard to say. He is a safety, and as a general rule, Devaney said, safeties aren't usually picked very high. Since the dawn of the new millennium, only six safeties have been among the first 15 players chosen in the draft. Berry, however, considers himself to be more than just a safety. "If you want to get into positions, I played every position in the defensive backfield in Coach Kiffin's scheme," Berry said. "You could also say I played a little linebacker. "So free safety, strong safety, a nickel corner for three years; I've also played true corner, so I feel I bring a lot to the table and have a lot to offer the team that picks me up." No one will argue with that last statement. In addition to his coverage skills, scouts love Berry's leadership ability and the swagger with which he always seems to play. There are some, however, who don't believe Berry is quite as versatile as he claims to be. That bit about playing true cornerback, for instance, noted draft analyst Mike Mayock isn't buying it. "I think with Berry, if you try to take him from safety and kick him to corner you take away what makes him special," Mayock said. "And what makes him special is his range and his playmaking ability in the middle of the field." There's no doubt that latter skill is special. Berry finished his three-year run at Tennessee with 14 interceptions for 494 yards, which is just 7 yards shy of Terrell Buckley's NCAA record of 501 return yards. Berry also returned three picks for touchdowns and knocked down another 17 passes, including seven last year, when opposing quarterbacks all but ignored his side of the field. "Teams were looking at me like I had the plague," Berry said. "There wasn't nobody throwing my way. I would always have to run across the field to make the tackle." The fact that opposing teams started throwing away from him last year was one of the reasons Berry decided to make the jump to the NFL. A family in need of what his NFL contract can provide it was another. "I had to put my family before my school," Berry said. "Ever since I can remember, my mom and dad were always working, my dad working two jobs, and he recently had heart surgery. "I really want him to be able to sit down and just enjoy life for a little bit. I felt like I could do that for him by entering the draft and making that situation better at home." By entering the draft, Berry is going to make some NFL team's situation better, too. And a lot of the thanks for that has to go to Kiffin, who did a lot more for Berry than just advise him on his next career step. "He made me so much of a better player, especially from the mental aspect of the game," Berry said. "I mean, he didn't just call plays. He told us exactly why he was calling those plays. "He would say, 'OK, it's third-and-short and this is why we're calling this play against this team' or 'This is what you can expect from them.' You kind of got into the mind of the coordinator a little bit, and that was special." So, too, it seems is Berry. Keep him or cut him: Be the Bucs' GM Who would you bring back for the Bucs next season and who would you let go? Thursday, Feb. 25: Quarterbacks Friday, Feb. 26: Defensive line Saturday, Feb. 27: Offensive line Sunday, Feb. 28: Linebackers Monday, March 1: Running backs Tuesday, March 2: Defensive backs Wednesday, March 3: Receivers/tight ends Thursday, March 4: Summary and results
Reporter Roy Cummings can be reached at (813) 259-7979.