Eric Berry is an All-American safety. He’s the reigning SEC defensive player of the year. As of Tuesday morning, he’s officially a Heisman Trophy candidate.
And if Tennessee has its way, he’ll soon become an Internet sensation.
UT’s Heisman campaign for Berry will include some traditional components — an Eric Berry “Word of the Week” calendar mailed to national media members, for instance, and a giant jersey with his No. 14 will be on display before and after games. But the bulk of Tennessee’s first Heisman marketing plan since Peyton Manning’s in 1997 will take place in cyberspace.
There’s already a dedicated Web site (Berry4Heisman.com), pages on Facebook (Berry4Heisman) and Twitter (Berry4Heisman). There’s even a free ringtone of fans chanting Berry’s name during the Mississippi State game last fall available for download at PhoneZoo.com. Soon, there will be a series of YouTube videos, all in hopes of generating a buzz around the dynamic junior safety.
UT director of public relations Tiffany Carpenter, who is heading up Berry’s campaign, said there are other elements that will be revealed throughout the season as well.
“Viral marketing is something that can be very useful,” Carpenter said. “It’s inexpensive. It’s immediate. There’s so many social networking tools out there that we need to use effectively. We’ve got a series of ads we’re creating that we’ll send out sometime in August. It’s just ways to get people talking about Eric and get some buzz surrounding him. It’s also to change people’s way of thinking that it always has to be a quarterback.”
Although a quarterback has won the award eight of the last nine seasons, precedent does exist for a defensive back winning the Heisman Trophy — not that most Tennessee fans need a reminder.
Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson edged former UT quarterback Manning for the award in 1997, largely due to playing some on offense and returning kicks. UT coach Lane Kiffin said Tuesday that Berry could return kicks this fall, but the 5-foot-11 junior won’t factor in the Vols’ plans on offense.
“I would never play someone somewhere based on any award,” Kiffin said. “I was hired here to win games and do the best thing for our team. We’re going to do whatever it takes to win (games). To put Eric over there, I really don’t see that helping us win.”
He also said Berry, who caught a pass at wide receiver against Alabama, and rushed for 37 yards on seven carries in 2008, needs as much time as possible on defense so he can become fluent in Monte Kiffin’s Cover 2 defense.
“This defensive scheme is even going to make him better,” Lane Kiffin said. “Remember, he’s learning a brand new scheme, so it’s not like he’s going into his third year of a scheme and, ‘OK, let’s take him over to offense this week because he knows the defense so well.’ He needs all the reps. … I want to make sure that he’s the best safety in America.”
There’s little competition for Berry on that front.
Heading into his junior season, the Atlanta-area native needs just 15 interception return yards to break former Florida State star Terrell Buckley’s 18-year-old NCAA career record of 501 yards. Last season, he tied for the lead nationally with seven interceptions.
He also was one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s best defensive back. Southern California’s Taylor Mays, another Thorpe finalist from last year, also returns. However, Kiffin said Berry is more versatile, albeit smaller, than the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Mays.
The versatility, and his ability to return interceptions, is one of the reasons many NFL draft analysts have Berry landing somewhere in the top 15 picks if he elects to turn pro, as most expect, following the season. And Kiffin knows that Berry likely won’t return for his final season in 2010.
“I’ve already given up that Eric won’t be here for his last year,” joked Kiffin, who coached at USC from 2001-06. “I’ll be interested to see how the NFL looks at it, because there will be certain teams that’ll want to draft one instead of the other because of that.”
In many ways, that’s a tribute to what Berry has accomplished in only two years on campus. Plans have been in the works since the middle of last season — perhaps longer — to market Berry for the Heisman this season. Berry found out in February that UT was planning a campaign and received approval from Berry’s parents, including his father James, a former Vols standout, in April.
Berry, who was not part of Tuesday’s press conference, was “floored” when told of the plans, Carpenter said.
UT athletic director Mike Hamilton was a little less surprised.
“For me, it’s hard to believe he didn’t win the Thorpe Award last year,” Hamilton said. “I think he represents everything that’s right about what Heisman candidates should look like. I fully support the staff’s efforts to make sure that the national media and the public knows that Eric Berry is worthy of that kind of consideration.”
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.