Eric Berry settles into role in NFL

Rookie has played big part in Chiefs' success

Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, right, breaks up a pass intended for Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Lloyd during their game on Dec. 5.

Photo by Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, right, breaks up a pass intended for Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Lloyd during their game on Dec. 5.

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.

Tennessee cornerback Eric Berry (14) greets a fan after the 56-28 win over Memphis on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009 at Neyland Stadium.

Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess // Buy this photo

Tennessee cornerback Eric Berry (14) greets a fan after the 56-28 win over Memphis on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009 at Neyland Stadium.

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.

The Centerpiece

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.

Keeping Tabs

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.

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Comments » 20

dead_vol_foul (Inactive) writes:

was in KC at start of the nfl season...heard some talk radio types bashing him a bit. Stuff like "can't cover, can't handle tight ends, all is good for is run support"

I could sort of understand the frustration with Berry being a first-rounder, but on the other hand thought they were wanting too much too soon. He's got the potential to be a 10-year mainstay, but fans want it from day one.

sambad writes:

Way to go Eric. We're proud of you.

wigmeister writes:

He was great here and he will be great there!

wazzya69vol writes:

Eric thank you for being the stand-up guy you are. You represent the Vol Nation well, and we appreciate it. And don't you ever forget, you'll ALWAYS be part of our Tennessee family. Best of luck. GBO!!

RoadTrip writes:

In all my 50+ years of following the Vols, EB was the best DB and one of the best leaders. No surprise he is leading the defense already at KC. It only gets better as he gains experience. We are all real proud of you EB!

Orangeblood13 writes:

in response to dead_vol_foul:

was in KC at start of the nfl season...heard some talk radio types bashing him a bit. Stuff like "can't cover, can't handle tight ends, all is good for is run support"

I could sort of understand the frustration with Berry being a first-rounder, but on the other hand thought they were wanting too much too soon. He's got the potential to be a 10-year mainstay, but fans want it from day one.

i live up here, they bash everyone, the thing is, they stunk for so long, they don't know what real class looked like.

He will be a stud for awhile

dead_vol_foul (Inactive) writes:

in response to Orangeblood13:

i live up here, they bash everyone, the thing is, they stunk for so long, they don't know what real class looked like.

He will be a stud for awhile

yeah, that is what I took. It was pretty half-hearted. they day I listened, it was mainly focused on the expectation for more out of a first-rounder.

I thought KC put together a phenomenal draft. Very clever picks.

Fryinpansvols writes:

Mr. Berry is the definition of what a football player should be. He has class, high character, leadership, and smarts of the game. Without a doubt, a big part of the reason the Kansas City Chiefs have turned it around so quickly. And by the way, he will be worth every penny for them. We miss you at UT and wish you the best for years to come! And on Sunday when you play my Tennessee Titans I'm going to be sorta torn on who to root for since the Titans are not going to the postseason. Keep making us all proud EB and GBO!

movol77 writes:

I believe KC chose 7 players in the last draft who were previously "captain" on their college teams. That is Landry-esque. Look at the result.

FatElvis writes:

I wish CDD can find us another Eric Berry. I'll pull for Eric in every game but when he plays Tennessee.

OrangePride writes:

Been in and around UT football for almost 40 years now and Berry is one of the best I have ever seen play in Orange and White.....on either side of the ball. But more than just his athletic skills, which are considerable, he is an even better person. Tennessee is fortunate to have such a great representative of this University.

UTByrd writes:

in response to FatElvis:

I wish CDD can find us another Eric Berry. I'll pull for Eric in every game but when he plays Tennessee.

Let's get his twin brothers. It has been reported they are further along in their development than EB was at the same age.
Come to UT young men and add to the Berry legend.
Go VOLS!!!!!

Sledge_08 writes:

Yeah he just settled in to an int. against the Titans. Go Eric

my3cents writes:

in response to Plasticman:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

First pick 6 of his NFL career. Many more to come. Possibly the best defensive back in UT history.. maybe best in NFL history. Awesome young man!

TrueVol70 writes:

in response to my3cents:

First pick 6 of his NFL career. Many more to come. Possibly the best defensive back in UT history.. maybe best in NFL history. Awesome young man!

Saw that pick six on the highlights while watching the Bears beat the Jets. Really nice grab and some fancy yards after catch! Very nice to see Eric playing again even if he's not wearing orange.

punkin writes:

in response to TennVolAlum:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Believe me when I say you will pay dearly for that jersey down the road.

wazzya69vol writes:

My wife and I were watching the game today just for Eric Berry, same as we always watch Peyton when available. He got that pick 6 and we were ecstatic! I told her we got to see his first one; how great is that!!! Eric won and now we're pulling for Colts against Raiders. And then off to Nashville to see our Vols beat Carolina. Thank goodness my wife likes football and bleeds Orange! GBO!!

Juzkruzin writes:

in response to Plasticman:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I agree now is the time to start courting them. If a 7th Grader can commit to USC, why can they not commit to UT. Get Big Brother involved in it. I am sure they would listen to him. CDD needs to make a road trip through the Mid-West and plan a stop over in Kansas City and see how one of the former Vols are doing and say "By the way I heard you had two younger brothers etc). I don't think it is every too early, but the NCAA would dig up some rule from 1942 no one ever heard off and use that!!

VOL1SG writes:

in response to punkin:

Believe me when I say you will pay dearly for that jersey down the road.

+1... Ain't that the truth. She has a blank check and she will cash it. FOREVER!!! Awesome gift though.

Mtnbiker writes:

Titans Postseason was a hope and prayer. I'd like to seen them win, but once the game was looking lopsided I was fully as loud on that pick 6 as any he had in Orange. Very happy for him.

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