KANSAS CITY, Mo. - For years, so much came easily for Eric Berry. The former University of Tennessee defensive back was an All-American in 2009 and a two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Quarterbacks feared him. Opposing coaches drew up game plans that avoided him.
Then he was drafted fifth overall in April's NFL draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. Things didn't seem so easy anymore.
"It's kind of hard fooling those guys sometimes," Berry said this week.
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The thing about Berry is that he doesn't need to fool anyone. He was the jewel of a Chiefs draft class that was heavy on SEC playmakers and top-tier talent, and from almost his first day in an NFL uniform, he was Kansas City's starter at strong safety. There was some anxiety for a while that he might not live up to expectations, but as he nears the end of his rookie season, those worries have calmed.
But there's no doubt Berry's role has changed. He once was the improvising, ball-hawking defender who could do what he wanted on a football field. Now, he's confined to system that relies on sticking to assignments and sometimes passing up opportunities to make the plays that defined his career in Knoxville. He has three interceptions this season, and maybe that's fewer than some expected.
Still, Berry is seen as a rising star because of his performance in the Chiefs' rush defense and some early signs of leadership.
That doesn't mean there haven't been challenges. Some stick in his mind more persistently than others.
"Dealing with the tight ends," Berry said flatly. "In college you didn't really have to worry about the tight ends too much. Now on the NFL level, the tight ends are more athletic and a lot better.
"Another thing is definitely the quarterback; they are more accurate with their throws, and they pretty much know and have seen all the defenses that are possible."
The Science of Football
Berry hasn't needed to rely on trickery so much, thanks to his talent and a few intangibles that the Chiefs saw long before they selected him. Weeks before the draft, Berry visited Kansas City and met with coach Todd Haley and general manager Scott Pioli. During Berry's ride from the airport with Haley's assistant, the young man made such an impression that word traveled quickly upstairs: Berry spoke with authority, and his intelligence was unmistakable. Playing football was science to him, and each time he was part of his team's defense, he seemed to offer a chance at a breakthrough. That was the impression before he took a step inside the team's headquarters.
Kansas City decided after that first visit that Berry was its man. On a Thursday in April, Chiefs officials strolled around their practice facility, on a night that was supposed to be filled with anxiety and pressure, with the calm of men whose big decision had been made.
"We needed difference-makers," Haley said a few weeks after the draft, and it was clear that the safety from Tennessee, the player who made things seem so easy, was a player the Chiefs - who had won a combined 10 games in the previous three seasons - couldn't pass up.
Later in the draft, Kansas City added former Mississippi players Dexter McCluster and Kendrick Lewis - who starts at free safety alongside Berry - and former Alabama cornerback Javier Arenas.
But Berry was the centerpiece, and that was no mystery, either. Berry had 14 interceptions in three seasons for the Vols. And, during that same time, he was called for only one penalty. If the SEC was as easy as Berry had made it look, surely the NFL wouldn't be much more difficult.
Then again …
"You might have to sit back like half a second," he said, "and see what all is happening and then react."
Romeo Crennel's defense doesn't allow players, even potential stars, to break from their assignments.
That took some getting used to for Berry. He went five games without an interception, and worry was beginning to set in. When he finally got his hands on a pass by Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Todd Bouman, Kansas City was relieved, and so was Berry.
"A long time coming," he said after that game in late October.
Since then, the concern has lifted. Berry has been a factor in the Chiefs' pass defense, but he has been a force in stopping the run. With two regular-season games remaining in his rookie season, he's second on the team in tackles and is tied with Lewis for the team lead in interceptions. The Chiefs are on the brink of their first division championship in seven seasons, and, at 9-5, they have locked in a winning record.
Kansas City plays the Tennessee Titans today, and the only way the Chiefs can guarantee a playoff spot is if they beat the Titans and win again next week.
"We'll have our hands full," Berry said.
Berry still keeps up with what's going on in Knoxville. He spoke this week about UT's basketball team and its string of recent disappointments, and he's well aware of what Derek Dooley is doing with the football team.
"I believe he came in and helped out the guys a lot," Berry said. "Came in in a rough situation but kept the guys positive and still made it to a bowl game. I think he has that program going in the right direction. Everyone just has to buy in and keep working to get better every day."
That's similar to what Berry hears most days in Kansas City. Buying in and getting better is what he does most days, too. He might not yet make the NFL look easy, but he's making it look less difficult each day.
Kent Babb is a freelance contributor.