If Berry does establish himself as a finalist, it won’t be as a two-way player. Not according to new Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin.
“I would never play someone based on an award,” said Kiffin, who shares the cover of this year’s media guide with the consensus All-America safety. “I was hired here to win games and to do the best thing for our team. We’re going to do whatever it takes to win.
“To put Eric over there, I really don’t see that helping us win. One, you’re going to take away from him doing what he does best, and that’s learning our defense. Him in this defense, in this defensive scheme, is going to make him even better.”
Kiffin pointed out that Berry is still learning the defensive scheme of coordinator Monte Kiffin — Lane’s dad — and that the rising junior had no contact during spring practice as he recuperated from shoulder surgery.
“He’s missed a lot of stuff. I want to make sure that he’s the best safety in America,” Lane Kiffin said. “To steal time from him and put him over there, I don’t even know if that necessarily makes us much better over there because we’ll spend so much time with the guys that are there that we’ll improve those guys enough that I think it would water down their learning, and I think it would water down his learning on defense as well.”
Kiffin did say Berry may be a factor in the return game.
Roughly 72 hours before he appears at his first Southeastern Conference media days and a week removed from the start of preseason camp, the youngest current coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision spoke with candor on a variety of topics.
Kiffin confirmed he will call the plays this season, while offensive coordinator Jim Chaney coaches from the box.
That issue is settled, but the identity of Tennessee’s starting quarterback remains in question. Kiffin said the competition is ongoing, and that Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens will see equal reps as fall camp begins.
Stephens missed a good portion of the spring drills because of a wrist injury.
“With all our jobs — we’ve said it before — except for Eric, they’re still open,” Kiffin said. “There’s a reason for that.
“I haven’t been able to watch these guys for two months. I guarantee you that guys have passed guys up by the way they’ve worked out this offseason.”
Kiffin said he did not intend to rotate signal- callers this season.
“Quarterbacks don’t operate well under pressure, feeling that they’re going to get pulled all the time,” the coach and former QB said, adding: “Great offenses have a rhythm about them. … if you switch quarterbacks, the cadence is different, the huddle is different and you never create a real rhythm.”
Neither Crompton nor Stephens, or the since- transferred B.J. Coleman, did enough to lock down the quarterback duties last season. Kiffin said he had not discussed those struggles and switcheroos at signal-caller with this season’s candidates.
“I’ve had conversations that they understand that I’m going to protect them,” Kiffin said. “Quarterback’s different than everybody else, so I’m going to protect them in the way that I call games. I’m going to protect them in the way that I talk to the media about them as well, and that I’ve got their back. They need to understand that.
“I can see in Jonathan with what has happened before, and around here — I don’t know if this is a good comparison — it’s like a bad relationship,” Kiffin added. “He’s hurt, and so you can tell when things go bad a little bit with him that he kind of freezes up a little bit because he’s been beat up for so long here. That’s very obvious for me to see, so I’ve worked very hard at getting him out of that by conversations and to understand we’re not worried about what happened before. Just like everybody else, we’re focused on the future. I think he’s getting a lot better at that.”
Kiffin also discussed this year’s recruiting class, headlined by running back Bryce Brown. Dubbed the top overall prospect in the country, Brown certainly looks the part, according to his new coach.
“He looks like the real deal. He’s 218 pounds right now, and he looks like a guy who’s been in the NFL for a few years,” Kiffin said.
As for the other freshmen in a top-10 recruiting class, defensive tackle Arthur Jeffery should be ready to go following knee surgery, and newcomers Zach Rogers, Marsalis Teague and Nu’Keese Richardson will get the first chance to make an impact at wide receiver.
One thing that Kiffin did squash? The rumor that Tennessee would be wearing special black jerseys soon.
“I did hear that report. And that black’s my favorite color,” Kiffin said. “If you watched the last two years of my life, you probably realize I don’t like black.”
For more from Tuesday’s news conference in Knoxville, read John Moorehouse’s “Orange Clockwork” blog at www.timesnews.net.