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"It's a matter of finding ways to get around quarterbacks and knowing their reads. Knowing what they're looking at and studying them more than they study me." -- Baltimore All-Pro safety Ed Reed
It began when he was 12 years old. His moms made the first tape. From that point on, his life would not be the same.
Eric Berry is in study mode. He is inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center on the campus of the University of Tennessee trying to perfect a game that was not meant to be perfected. At least not when you are not on the field
He's watching excuse me, studying film. Studying himself, studying his next opponent. Studying what he can make perfect. This is what he does. This is all he really does. And no one does it quite like he does.
To know the best defensive player in college football this year (maybe the best player period, but there are some who will argue), the best player in the SEC (again, more argument), is to know that his brilliance does not come from what he does once he's on the field. It begins here. When he's in sweats or shorts, when he's not taking downfield attempts away from teams, when he's not making life a living hell for opposing head coaches and offensive coordinators. When he's in study mode.
It's when he's "preparing" for a game -- something he treats as if it's a science -- that Eric Berry become more dangerous than any other player in the country. More dangerous than the three other players ahead of him in the race for this year's Heisman.
"When I was around 12 years old, something clicked," he said on the phone the day before he almost personally held Western Kentucky to 83 total yards of offense in Tennessee's 63-7 Saturday rout. "My mom started videotaping my games. I started watching football differently and I started watching the tapes seeing what I was doing wrong and then correcting those mistakes."
Those mistakes have come few and very far between over the past eight years. The kid from Fulton County, Ga., who left there three years ago as one of the most decorated high school sports stars ever (rated the No. 3 player in the country coming out of high school by Rivals.com in 2007), enters his junior year under the infamous Lane Kiffin as this year's Brian Orakpo: the one defensive player who will have most GMs doing everything this side of breaking NFL rules to put themselves in position to draft him.
Because it was he, not former Heisman winner and defending national champion QB Tim Tebow, who was the leading vote getter for the all-Southeastern Conference team. It is he who, most people believe, will be drafted higher and have a better NFL career than Tebow when it is all said and done.
But even before that day comes, there is something that needs full concentration when determining who Eric Berry is and more importantly why a 5-11, 203-pound CB/safety is getting more attention and "looks" than all nonquarterbacks in NCAA football so far this season.
It goes back to the comment that opened this column.
The reason Ed Reed is at the top of this piece is because it is his words that Berry patterns his game after, his tao that Berry patterns his "being" after. Soaking into Ed's psyche the way Robert Ford sunk into Jesse James. "The way he prepares " Berry says of Reed, "the way he studies. How he gets those interceptions, how he gets those TDs. I try to incorporate a little bit of everybody [in my play], even players I play against in the SEC. But Ed Reed ... "
But Ed Reed's approach to the game has infiltrated Berry's passion to reach that Charles Woodson level of superiority in college football. Even over the phone he refuses to concede the virtually impossible scenario that his name will be called to the stage in New York City in early December.
"Let's be honest," I ask him, "do you think you have a real chance to win the Heisman?"
"I think I do," he responds. "But whatever happens is going to happen. All I can really do is go out there and give 120 percent then the rest will take care of itself."
"[Charles] Woodson [the only defensive player to ever win the Heisman] won it [in 1997] but he didn't have to go through what you are going to have to go through to get it," I push back. "He didn't have to go through two former Heisman winners [Sam Bradford of Oklahoma and Tebow of Florida] and a QB [Colt McCoy of Texas] that might be better than both of them. So for real, you think you have a shot?"
In his subtle Georgia accent Berry simply came back with, "I love a challenge."
What we talkin' about the (USC safety) Taylor Mays, (South Carolina linebacker) Eric Norwood or the best? What we talkin' about 12 interceptions in two years or teams being scared to put him to the test? What we talkin' about his gift or the fact that there is no curse? What we talkin' about the Hova of college football or a Hova verse?
What we talkin' about is the dude who's already being called "The Fifth Dimension" because what he does on the field is close to impossible to replicate on EA's "NCAA Football 10" video game. What we talkin' about is a combination of Deion Sanders, Charles Woodson, Reed, Rod Woodson and Nnamdi Asomugha. With the potential to reach their levels the minute he reaches the next level. Someone who ESPN's own Pat Forde claims will be a first-round draft pick or "Mel Kiper will shave his head." Someone who made Western Kentucky coach Dave Elson admit, "Obviously you've got to be aware of where No. 14 [Berry] is. We didn't do a great job of that." Someone who will take up too much of Urban Meyer's time this week and too much of Tebow's mind on Saturday
(Both Meyer and Tebow will remember the 2007 interception of Berry's that he took back 96 yards for a touchdown in only the third game of his college career.)
And at the heart of this are the hearts and souls of two others. Two kids who, according to Eric, have their futures invested in the success or failure of his future: his two younger twin brothers.
At 13 years old, by Eric's admission, they are bigger (one is already 6-1 and 175 pounds) and better than he was when he was at their age seven years ago.
"I have to set an example for them," he says. "I have to give them something to push for. They are already past where I was when I was their age so I have to keep pushing myself to give them something [better] to push for."
And as he pushes himself to levels beyond most comprehension, Eric Berry stays focused on both the moment he is living in and the moments that lie ahead. When asked of life, his, and what he'd like at this point in his life to be remembered for, Berry reeled off the commandments of his existence.
"A humble guy who loved the game and who played with reckless abandon," he resolved. Then he brought everything full circle.
"And I want people to notice how I prepare to play, all the preparation I put in before I go out there."
Wonder where the blueprint for that approach to the game in a 20-year-old actually came from?
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.