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The ongoing talk about Tennessee safety Eric Berry playing offense took a new twist Tuesday.
According to UT coach Phillip Fulmer, Berry has played at least a portion of the year with a shoulder injury that could require surgery after the season.
“I’ve haven’t said this all year, but Eric’s had a shoulder thing going on. Something we really had to be careful with,” Fulmer said during his weekly press conference when asked again about the possibility of Berry, a former high school quarterback, taking snaps on offense during Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt (TV: WVLT, 12:30 p.m.).
Fulmer provided few specifics on Berry’s injury, other than to say it was “an old one.”
Berry spoke with reporters about 30 minutes before Fulmer and did not mention an injury.
So far this season, the sophomore has played one snap on offense, catching a 3-yard screen pass in a loss to Alabama on Oct. 25. Until Tuesday, the reasons given for Berry’s lack of snaps on offense had been a lack of depth at safety, his importance on special teams and a desire to keep him fresh late in games.
“All those things were true during the heat of the season and everything,” Fulmer said. “To get him over there and get him tackled 25 times or 20 times a game or 10 times, at that point wasn’t something we necessarily were going to do.”
Despite being injured, Berry has remained productive on defense for the Vols (3-7, 1-5 SEC). The sophomore ranks third on the team with 64 tackles and is tied for first nationally with six interceptions, including one he returned 72 yards for a touchdown against Mississippi State.
“He managed it pretty well,” Fulmer said. “It’s something after the season they’re going to have to look at and probably make a decision what to do about it.”
Even with the apparent injury, Berry will play Saturday. Berry’s shoulder isn’t serious enough to rule out a few plays on offense against the Commodores (6-4, 4-3), Fulmer said, and the sophomore has not missed practice time because of the injury. He even worked some on offense during the open date last week.
Even if Berry doesn’t play on offense, Saturday’s game will still feature a two-way player.
Vanderbilt cornerback D.J. Moore, who like Berry is a Thorpe Award semifinalist, picked off a pair of passes and caught two touchdown passes in the Commodores’ 31-24 victory over Kentucky last week.
For the year, he has 53 rushing yards on five carries and is one of two SEC players to match Berry’s interception total. Moore also ranks fourth in the SEC with 14.4 yards per punt return.
While Berry spends most of his time watching opposing offenses, he said he occasionally sneaks a peek at footage of Moore on defense.
Needless to say, he likes what he sees. And he can easily see himself doing some of the same things — on both sides of the ball.
“I wouldn’t call it jealous,” Berry said. “I just look at him and say, ‘Man, I could do the same thing.’ It’s pretty funny, though. I truly respect a player that can go both ways. It just makes me want to do it even more.”
There’s little question in Fulmer’s mind that Berry could do for the Vols what Moore has done for Vanderbilt, which became bowl eligible for the first time since 1982 with its sixth win of the season last week.
“If we had better depth at safety, yes. If he hadn’t had any injury, yes,” Fulmer said. “Those are certainly things he could have done.”
Asked if Moore’s performance against Kentucky made him want to lobby coaches for a chance to play on offense this week, Berry chuckled.
“Just a little bit,” he said.
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.