Evan Berry's role could expand to defense after special season

Evan Berry's role could expand to defense after special season

December 17th, 2015 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

UT's Dillon Bates, top, and Micah Abernathy, right, celebrate Evan Berry's, left, touchdown against Western Carolina Saturday, September 19, 2015 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.

UT's Dillon Bates, top, and Micah Abernathy, right,...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Evan Berry made a monster impact on special teams for Tennessee this season, as evidenced by the growing list of accolades that have come his way this month.

The sophomore's role could expand next season.

Named the SEC special teams player of the year by the league's coaches last week, Berry, who leads the nation in kickoff-return average, will have the chance this offseason to work his way into a starting spot at safety.

With seniors Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil set to depart the program and take 86 starts and 525 career tackles with them after the Outback Bowl, the Volunteers will need to find replacements on the back line of their defense.

"I kind of don't want to lean to one side of the ball, whether it's special teams or defense," Berry said after Tuesday's practice. "I try to just play both of them equally and give it the best I can. When that time comes for me to start playing safety, I'll play safety and do special teams as well."

The 5-foot-11, 207-pound former four-star recruit did pretty well on special teams this season.

He averaged 38.3 yards on 21 kickoff returns — that's nearly 5 yards more than the next-best average — and returned kicks for touchdowns against Western Carolina, Arkansas and Kentucky to match the single-season program record set by Willie Gault in 1980.

That success caused the awards to roll in for Berry since the season ended.

He was named a first-team All-American by the Walter Camp Foundation, The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated and a second-team All-American by the Football Writers' Association, CBS and FOX Sports.

"What we've accomplished on kickoff return really isn't normal," Berry said.

"I couldn't have done it by myself," he added, giving credit to the return team blocking for him. "Sometimes I might make a mistake, and they might have my back and make me right. All the credit can't go to me."

Berry is Tennessee's first All-SEC returner since Cordarrelle Patterson in 2012, and his player of the year nod made him the first Vol to earn an individual SEC award since his older brother, Eric, was named the league's defensive player of the year in 2008.

"It's kind of funny, I really didn't think about it until I saw a tweet on my phone that said that," Evan said. "It's a great feeling, just to have my brother do it right before me, I really can't describe it. It's just a great feeling."

Berry's explosiveness with the ball in his hands gives Tennessee a reason to consider putting him on offense or playing him both ways, and though he spent a couple of practices at running back during his freshman season and played quarterback in high school, such a move doesn't appear to be imminent.

"Coach (Butch) Jones, he teases me about it all the time, but I really don't know," Berry said. "If they need me at a position — knock on wood — because of injuries or whatever, I'm willing to make a sacrifice to go over there.

"But as of right now, I'm a safety."

There will be plenty of playing time at that position up for grabs next season with Randolph and McNeil gone. Berry and Todd Kelly Jr. each have rotated into games at safety this season. Berry started the opener against Bowling Green with McNeil's season thought to be over and Kelly coming off surgery.

Berry struggled enough in that game that Tennessee put Kelly on the field even though he wasn't 100 percent, but he's looked more comfortable on defense as the season progressed.

Stephen Griffin, a freshman the coaching staff believes to be a promising player, also will be in the mix at safety as the Vols prepare to replace two of their most experienced defenders.

"Evan's a very talented guy, obviously," Randolph said Monday. "It's good to see him get some experience. We have a package for him on defense where he comes in on third down. He got through another year of college at safety, so I think he's ready to take on a full load at safety."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.