Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Tennessee’s Eric Berry has become such a rock star in Knoxville that he might have to add shades to his disguise when he goes out on the town.
“I used to be able just to put a hat on and nobody knew who I was,” Berry joked.
His mug is everywhere, from billboards, to SportsCenter, to a different highlight video that pops up on the Internet seemingly every day.
Berry admits that it’s been crazy. The university even launched a Berry4Heisman.com Web site.
“It all kind of snuck up on me, to be honest,” said Berry, who plays the safety position the way Jimi Hendrix played the guitar. “Coming in, I was pretty much just Eric Berry, Tennessee safety, and then everything just kind of blew up over the summer. It caught me off guard, not in a bad way, but it just sort of surprised me.
“What I’m most thankful for is that Tennessee is getting all this attention.
As defensive players go, Berry is a rare breed. He can cover anybody on the field, can put any ball-carrier on the field on his back and turns into the most explosive offensive player on the field when he gets his hands on the ball.
Berry has 12 career interceptions and needs just 15 yards to break the major college record for interception return yardage in a career. Terrell Buckley of Florida State had 501 return yards from 1989-91.
“I’ve been playing quarterback since I was 5. I don’t think you ever get rid of those offensive instincts,” said Berry, who doesn’t expect to line up on offense this season unless the Vols get into some kind of bind. "But what I do now is chase people."
What he does expect is for Tennessee to claw its way back to the upper echelon of the SEC.
In his words, the Vols are going to “shock a lot of people” this season.
“I know the way we’ve worked, and I know the standards these coaches have for us,” Berry said. “We still have a sour taste in our mouths from the 5-7 season last year. I can promise you we’re a lot closer than most people think to being back in the SEC Championship Game.”
Berry, whose father, James Berry, was a captain on Tennessee's 1981 team, was extremely loyal to the Vols’ former coaches. He still speaks reverently about Phillip Fulmer and John Chavis.
But he loves the bravado that first-year coach Lane Kiffin has brought to the program.
“Everybody tries to put this label on him and asks, ‘What’s wrong with your coach?,’ ” Berry said. “All he’s doing is defending his team. Coming off a 5-7 season last year and our coach having to leave us, we all were wondering, ‘Who’s going to have our back?’
“Nobody liked Tennessee, but coach Kiffin came right in, said what he had to say, and that did wonders for our confidence. Our respect for him was immediate, seeing how he believed in us.
“Who wouldn’t want to play for someone like that?”
Berry thinks he’ll be able to play even more aggressively this season in Monte Kiffin’s “Tampa 2” defense. He’ll also be a more demonstrative leader.
“I won’t second-guess myself as much," Berry said. "Last year, I did a little bit of that. But I’ll be able to kind of put together the tips I’ve learned from coach Kiffin and Chief (Chavis). Those are two pretty good guys to learn from.”
The Vols finished tied for third nationally in total defense last season, but Berry thinks there’s another level this season.
“Just seeing what (Monte Kiffin) expects from this defense and what standards he has for us, we’re going to have to exceed what we did last year,” Berry said. “We have to get ourselves in position to make plays and make sure we know where we’re supposed to be, and there’s no telling where this defense might take us.”
Berry and his father will share a priceless moment together prior to the UCLA game on Sept. 12 at Neyland Stadium. James Berry has been designated as one of the Vols' Legends for that game and will be introduced beforehand.
"It's one of the reasons I came to Tennessee, to relate to my dad," Berry said. "It will be a defining moment, both of us on the field together as captains. It's going to be special."
Indeed it will, a special day for a special player.