Jim Thorpe Award Winner – 2009, Tennessee
Eric Berry is a prime example of why the best defensive back in the nation cannot be determined by statistics alone. After intercepting five passes for 222 yards as a freshman and seven for 265 yards as a sophomore, he had only two for seven yards as a junior. Even so, as a junior he is a unanimous All-American, a finalist for the Bronco Nagurski and Ronnie Lott awards for best defensive player, a projected first of second pick in the 2010 NFL draft – and – winner of the Jim Thorpe Award. Perhaps the best statistic for a defensive back is how many times the opposition runs its plays to the opposite side of the field.
In the most one-sided voting ever, Berry won the Thorpe Award over finalists Joe Haden of Florida and Texas sophomore sensation Earl Thomas. In 2009, he was named to Rivals.com Team of the Decade and to the Sports Illustrated 2000s All-Decade Team. As a sophomore, he was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, a 2008 unanimous All-American and a Thorpe Award finalist. In 2007, he was a unanimous Freshman All-American, the SEC Freshman Defensive Player of the Year and made the All-SEC Freshmen Academic Honor Roll. His selection as winner of the 2009 Jim Thorpe Award was based on his performance on the field, athletic ability and character.
Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin on Eric Berry: “I’ve been coaching a long time and I’ve got to put Eric Berry right at the top. Eric has the whole thing, he really does. He is a great leader, a great player, he’s got great ball skills, he’s very, very smart – he’s like a quarterback on the field. He’s a very good tackler, he can play pass defense, he can play in the box, he can play deep. But probably more than anything else, players gravitate toward him. I’ve said this to many people, but whoever drafts Eric Berry – they may have somebody on the team who is a defensive all-Pro, a team captain or whatever – he will be the defensive captain before long wherever he’s at.”
After considering “every possible situation and scenario” and discussing it with his parents and coaches, Berry decided to skip his senior season to join the NFL draft. “I kind of had to get myself together because I really don’t want to leave; but I feel like this is just something that I need to do to help my family,” he said. “It was something that I could do to just let them sit down and relax and show them my appreciation for what they have done for me.”