Opportunity is knocking loudly on Eric Berry’s door.
Tennessee’s highly touted freshman cornerback from Fairburn, Ga., has taken over the first-team right cornerback spot as Marsalous Johnson recovers from a bruised shoulder he suffered in Saturday’s scrimmage.
“Hopefully, it’ll get better real soon and I can go back out and compete,” Johnson said Tuesday.
Defensive backs coach Larry Slade said Berry, Johnson and senior Antonio Gaines are locked in a three-way battle for playing time.
“You’ve got three corners competing for those two jobs,” Slade said. “Right now, I’ve got three starters.”
And before fans write off Johnson, who is 5-foot-9, for Berry, Slade emphasized, “That Marsalous is playing lights out! Lights out!”
Slade said junior college transfer DeAngelo Willingham and senior Art Evans also should benefit from Johnson’s brief absence.
Berry, however, has been the talk of the team since practice began two weeks ago. He intercepted a pass in Saturday’s scrimmage while working with the second team. In the final quarter, Berry replaced Johnson after Johnson bruised his shoulder.
Hurt or not, Johnson said he welcomes the competition.
“It lets me know I have someone pushing me,” the former Smyrna High School star said. “Eric and all those guys, I love having the competition. Competition is going to make me a better player and make them a better player.
“I’m a team player. If it’s going to make the team better, I want all the competition we can have.”
Berry wasn’t available for comment per UT’s media policy limiting freshman interviews.
If he maintains the first-team spot, he’ll face a challenge similar to what Jonathan Hefney endured in 2004, when Hefney — then a freshman cornerback — was inserted into the starting lineup to replace Jason Allen, who was moved from cornerback to safety.
“He’s in the same situation I was in when I first got here,” Hefney said. “I just told him he has to step up and make plays. I’m going to help him as much as possible. When Marsalous comes back, put them in together and see who comes out on top.”
Hefney, who has started 36 consecutive games since being inserted into the lineup in 2004, is one of many Vols who have been impressed with Berry.
“He came in ready, I think,” Hefney said. “I don’t know what they taught him in high school, but he came in ready to play. He came out wanting to know everything and learned everything.”
On the field, Hefney said Berry reminds him of another talented defensive back, starting strong safety Demetrice Morley, who was dismissed by the university for academic shortcomings in January.
“They both like to make plays,” Hefney said. “They like to hit. I see ’em hitting everybody. I see Eric tackling everybody he can.”