Berry vs. Mays: Who's better?

August, 13, 2009
8/13/09
10:48
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Eric Berry or Taylor Mays?

I know, it's like asking: Would you rather be soaking up rays on a beach in Maui or a beach in Cancun?

Can you go wrong with either?

Nonetheless, the debate is raging as we point toward the 2009 season as to who's the best safety in college football.

There's Tennessee's Berry on the East Coast and Southern California's Mays on the West Coast.

They were both Thorpe Award finalists a year ago and catalysts for a pair of defenses ranked among the top four nationally. Mays is bigger. Berry is faster.

They're similar in that they're both the kind of safety that changes the way an opposing offense will try to attack the defense. They're different because they each have their own distinctive styles.

Ted Miller and I will endeavor to settle this debate. Ted covers the Pac-10 for ESPN.com. He'll make the case for Mays, and I'll make the case for Berry based on four different categories: 1. Who's the better pass defender? 2. Who's the better tackler? 3. Who has a greater overall impact on the game? 4. Who's the better NFL prospect?

I'll start it off, and we'll alternate from there:

1. Who's the better pass defender?

Low: Not even close here. Just look at the numbers. In two seasons, Berry has 12 career interceptions, and he tied for the lead nationally a year ago with seven. He's a human magnet to the football, has great anticipation and is never out of position. Even though he plays safety, he's a good enough cover man that the Vols are going to use him some as the nickel guy on passing downs. The truth is that nobody really throws his way. And when they do, Berry becomes the best offensive player on the field because he's usually taking it back the other direction.

Miller: Hard to argue this one. Mays only has four career interceptions, including a bagel last year. Mays hasn't spent a lot of time in one-on-one coverage. But there is a legitimate counter here. First, USC's pass defense has yielded only 28 touchdowns in Mays' three years as a starter. Tennessee has yielded 33 in Berry's two years as a starter. If you don't think that's about Mays, then why did he lead the Trojans in pass breakups? USC plays a cover-2. Only with one safety. Mays. Mays doesn't blanket a receiver. He operates as a passing deterrent. Think of it this way: Would you rather live in a neighborhood where there is no crime because the criminals are afraid of going there or in a neighborhood where police often make dashing arrests?

2. Who's the better tackler?

Miller: There are competing YouTube videos on this. Berry has some great hits in his career, no doubt. But you don't need a career catalogue for Mays. Just watch last year's Cal game. Or the Rose Bowl, when he took out two players with one blow (unfortunately one was USC corner Kevin Thomas). In fact, the challenge would be finding a game in which Mays didn't have a tackling highlight. One of the reasons Mays hasn't produced as many interceptions as he should have -- other than owning mediocre hands -- is his obsession with sending folks rear-end-over-tea-kettle.

Low: I offer video evidence from any number of tackles a year ago. There was the shoulder shiver that sent Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno airborne. There was the hit on Alabama receiver Marquis Maze that sent him spinning like a helicopter. Berry's personal favorite was a freight train-like collision in the hole with Mississippi State's bruising 240-pound running back Anthony Dixon. Hey, the guy hits like a linebacker, and if he gets his hands on you, you're going down. There's a reason he has 158 career tackles, including 8.5 for loss last season.

3. Who has a greater overall impact on the game?

Low: Lining up Berry on any defense instantly makes everybody else around him better. He's that kind of difference-maker physically and is infectious with the way he plays the game with so much confidence. But what sets him apart is his offensive mentality once he gets his hands on the ball. Twice he scored touchdowns in 2008 on interception returns and enters this season needing only 15 yards to break the major college record in career interception return yardage (501). He has three interception returns for touchdowns during his career and is that rare player who's a threat to score no matter where on the field he intercepts the ball.

Miller: Mays was the most important player for one of the all-time best college defenses last year -- how's that for impact? In his three years as a starter, USC has ranked No. 1, No. 6 and No. 13 in pass efficiency defense. Tennessee has been No. 11 and 66th the past two seasons. Mays means no explosion plays in the passing game. He does not get beat deep. He means any receiver going over the middle is paddling his kayak toward Niagara Falls. As Kirk Herbstreit said during last year's Rose Bowl: "It takes a lot of courage to come into the middle of that defense knowing that Taylor Mays is going to come in and take a shot at you."

4. Who's the better NFL prospect?

Miller: First, let's challenge one thing. Mays is USC's fastest player. He ran a 4.25 40. So whether Berry is faster -- we shall see. Mays also is 6-foot-3, 235 pounds with zero body fat. He bench presses 425 pounds and recorded a 41-inch vertical leap. He's off the chart in terms of measurables, and he will turn the NFL combine into his little playpen. Second, Mays' four-year body of work playing at the highest level on the biggest stage for an annual national title contender means the bright lights of the NFL won't faze him. But, because we respect Berry so much, let's introduce some nuance because both these guys look like future All-Pros. Berry is an Ed Reed-type player. If a team is looking for a safety to play man-to-man on a slot receiver, he's your guy. Mays is more of a Steve Atwater, Adrian Wilson sort of safety. He can play center field. Or he can operate as a glorified linebacker.

Low: Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who knows a thing or two about what defenses are looking for in the NFL, has already said that he can't see how a team with the first pick in the draft wouldn't take Berry. The reason being: You just don't see 200-pound safeties who can hit the way Berry does, yet also possess the man-to-man coverage skills to slide over to the nickel and lock down a receiver. Two of the guys Berry grew up idolizing were Ed Reed and the late Sean Taylor, both prototypical NFL safeties. Berry will join that stratosphere soon enough.

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