The All-American safety is widely considered one of the top defenders in the nation, a dominant run stopper and owner of 13 career interceptions. Berry is hardly the type of player a struggling offense gets healthy against.
That’s the task today as quarterback Joe Cox and the Bulldogs offense attempts to right the ship after consecutive games in which denting the scoreboard proved an elusive goal, and despite Berry’s immense skill, they’re not too worried.
“It’s not something where anybody is intimidated of him, but he is a great player and has a great nose for the ball,” Cox said. “You’ve got to know where he is at all times, but it’s not like you play scared, scared to throw toward his side or scared to run the ball to his side. That’s not something that will happen, but he will be accounted for.”
Of course, accounting for Berry isn’t any easy feat. The junior is listed as a safety, but that hardly quantifies what he does on the field for the Volunteers.
Berry is exceptional in coverage, and while he’s a threat for an interception every time the ball goes his way, he’s also a master of the return, tallying 487 interception return yards in just his first two seasons.
This season, Berry has played routinely as Tennessee’s fourth linebacker, edging up toward the line of scrimmage to halt the opponent’s running game. The Vols rank fourth in rushing defense this season in large part due to Berry’s physical style.
And when it comes to playing his more traditional role of safety, Berry does it with all the intensity that Georgia fans have become used to seeing from their hard-hitting defensive backs over the years.
“You’ve got to be aware of where he is,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “The guy is a very physical football player, and if you’re not running behind your pads, he’ll cut you in half.”
Combine Cox’s six interceptions in five games with Georgia’s 105th-ranked running game, and Berry becomes an enormous obstacle as the Bulldogs look to rebound from a 20-13 loss last week to LSU.
Further complicating matters, however, is the man drawing up the plays for Berry.
Legendary NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is in his first year calling the shots for Tennessee’s defense after his son, Lane, landed the head-coaching job this offseason. Kiffin is renowned as the inventor of the Tampa Two defense, and his inventive play calling has been made even more complex thanks to Berry’s versatility.
Cox said the Bulldogs have been studying plenty of film this week, and while he’s been impressed with Kiffin’s work, he said there isn’t much Georgia hasn’t seen before. It’s simply a matter of avoiding mistakes against a defense that routinely capitalizes on them.
“It’s not like because here’s this NFL coach that the NFL has defenses that we’ve never seen,” Cox said. “There are a lot of people we play against whose defensive coordinators had coached in the NFL. It’s the same stuff.”
As much as Xs and Os play a part, Bobo said it’s Monte Kiffin’s personality that defines the Tennessee defense.
While Georgia’s offense spent much of the first half last week looking lost and timid, the Vols’ defense goes 100 percent on every play, Bobo said.
“It’s a team that will line up and play hard,” Bobo said. “When you look at the team, they line up and don’t do a lot of stuff, but they play hard for their guy, and that’s sort of the trademark they’re creating at Tennessee. They play hard, they run to the ball, they’ll hit, and they create turnovers. That’s the sign of a great defense.”
More problematic for Bobo is figuring out ways the Bulldogs match up against such a great defense.
Georgia mustered almost nothing on the ground last week and now will be without tailback Caleb King, who will miss the game due to a concussion. Washaun Ealey stepped in during the second half of last week’s game and showed a spark, but this will be just his second career game.
Against a team like Tennessee, a sluggish running game could prove disastrous for the Bulldogs.
“A lot of times they’re lining up saying, you’re not going to run the ball,” Cox said. “You’re going to have to beat us throwing the ball. That’ll be tough because you want to have a balanced game plan. We’re just going to have to find ways to open up holes for the run game against all their looks.”
Cox hasn’t minded beating a few teams with his arm this season – or more to the point, using his arm to get the ball to star wide receiver A.J. Green.
Green leads the SEC in receiving yards and catches, and his touchdown grab with 1:09 remaining last week appeared to sew up a win for Georgia.
As it turned out, however, LSU had an answer, and rather than the late-game highlights, it was the offense’s ineptitude for the first 50 minutes that proved to be the difference in the game.
This week, Bobo knows the task isn’t any easier, but the goal remains the same: Move the football, score points, win the game. It just so happens that one of the nation’s top defensive players and most respected defensive minds will be trying to stop them.
“I’m looking at trying to get this team back on track and find a way to win,” Bobo said. “It just so happens that (Kiffin) is coaching Tennessee right now and we’re playing the Tennessee defense. He’s going to call certain things, and we’ve got to go out there and execute. Us as coaches, we’ve got to get our guys believing in what we’re doing and go out and do it.”