Nov. 24, 2008
Zero and one.
Those were the return yards by Tennessee's Eric Berry on his first two interceptions this season. Since then, however, the sensational sophomore continues making up ground like no one before him and, in the process, snapped a 52-year-old Southeastern Conference record Saturday at Vanderbilt.
Berry claimed his NCAA-leading seventh interception of the year this weekend, returning it 45 yards for a touchdown as UT defeated it Vandy 20-10. That scoring play lifted Berry's season interception return yardage total to 265, breaking the previous SEC mark of 244 yards set by Florida's Joe Brodsky in 1956. For his career in just 24 games, Berry owns 12 interceptions for 487 return yards and three touchdowns.
"He's sound fundamentally, but he's so aggressive and so freaking fast that he gets his hands on a lot of balls," head coach Phillip Fulmer said Sunday night. "He's a special football player."
So special, in fact, that the Fairburn, Ga., product now owns both the Tennessee and SEC season and career interception yardage records -- and he's hot on the heels of the NCAA marks. Berry is just 14 yards shy of the major college career record of 501 set by Florida State's Terrell Buckley from 1989-91, and just 37 yards shy of the season record of 302 set by Southern California's Charles Phillips in 1974.
Not bad for someone still playing his second year of collegiate football.
"Eric is one of those guys, as I've said 100 times, who takes it from the practice field to the game field as well as anybody I've ever been around," Fulmer said. "He puts himself in a position to make plays but also stays within the system to allow himself not to get in trouble. Back there, if you get in trouble, you're usually giving up a big play."
Instead, it's Berry who has been the big-play producer for the Vols defense. He has three career interception returns for touchdown, including two this season. And he flipped to the offensive side of the ball Saturday against the Commodores, taking four direct snaps from center and rushing for 11 yards and a first down.
"The plays that he made on offense were good plays for us that helped keep the defense off the field and change field position," Fulmer said.
Berry, who is averaging 52.8 yards per return since those first two interceptions went for zero and one back in September, has only Saturday night's season finale against Kentucky to make more history in 2008. Already the owner of records that previously stood for 37, 39, 52 and 59 years, could the Tennessee safety etch his name further into the football annals?
"I won't focus on that stuff until after the season," he said Saturday in Nashville. "My focuses right now are on my assignments and winning."
In other words, Berry doesn't want the year to end by going "zero and one" against Kentucky.