ATHENS, Ga. — Following a game in which it produced just one first down in the first 30 minutes of action, Eric Berry might be the last person Georgia’s offense wants to see today.
The All-America safety is widely considered one of the top defenders in the nation, a dominant run stopper with 13 career interceptions. Berry isn’t the type of player a struggling offense gets healthy against.
That’s the task today for quarterback Joe Cox and the Bulldogs’ offense. But despite Berry’s immense skill, they say 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 describes what he does on the field for the Volunteers.
Berry is exceptional in coverage. He is a threat for an interception every time the ball goes his way, and he also is a master of the return, tallying 487 interception return yards in his first two seasons.
This season, Berry has played routinely as Tennessee’s fourth linebacker, edging toward the line of scrimmage to halt an 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 through 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 Kiffin, landed the head job this offseason, following his stint with the Oakland Raiders. The elder Kiffin is renowned as the inventor of the Tampa Two defense, and his inventive play-calling has been made even more complex with Berry’s versatility.
Cox said the Bulldogs have been studying plenty of film this week. He has been impressed with Kiffin’s work, but 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.
Georgia’s offense spent much of the first half last week looking lost and timid — and the Vols’ defense goes seemingly 100 percent on every play.
“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.”