KNOXVILLE — It’s been a topsy-turvy season, but no one could have predicted one current circumstance regarding the Tennessee football team.
At the midpoint of the campaign, defensive end Chris Walker has more interceptions than All-America safety Eric Berry.
“It’s definitely a competition,” Berry said. “I’ve been trying to catch him in sacks. I’ve been asking coaches, ‘Send me on blitzes so I can catch him.’ He does lead the team in interceptions right now, and he does have a touchdown. I’ve got my work cut out for me. We’ve been talking about that since the summer, and we’re going to hold each other to that.”
Walker, who returned his first pick of the season for a score against Ohio, snared another interception late in the first period of Saturday’s 45-19 win over Georgia. Gerald Williams tipped Joe Cox’s pass at the line of scrimmage and Walker corralled the ball.
“I think I might’ve been more excited than he was when he got the pick because I went running to tackle him myself,” fellow defensive end Ben Martin said.
Berry still just has one interception — picked off against Florida’s Tim Tebow — but did make a couple of big plays against the Bulldogs. He delivered a flying shot to Cox in the third quarter just as he threw. Then, in the fourth period, he returned a fumble after an assist by Art Evans.
Cox completed a pass to Michael Moore, who took only a couple of steps before a big hit by Evans sent the ball sailing into the air and into the grasp of Berry, who returned it 46 yards.
The Jumbotron on Neyland Stadium then posted a message congratulating Berry for setting the NCAA record for interception return yardage, but the play was ruled a fumble because Moore had control of the ball. Berry remains 15 yards shy of the NCAA record held by Terrell Buckley.
“It felt so good to just get my hands back on the ball a little bit and just do something with it,” Berry said. “I was just trying to be like my man over here, Montario (Hardesty), and just make some moves in the open field and get to the house.
“I think the crazy part about it was how excited the whole defense was to turn and block. Those guys were running faster than me, and I had the ball. It’s just amazing how unselfish our team is and how unselfish our defense is.”
PEP TALK: Lane Kiffin and his staff held a full team meeting Friday night to emphasize the importance of beating Georgia.
A few veterans on the current team spoke, as did members of the coaching staff — including former Vol Inky Johnson. Currently a graduate assistant, Johnson played for Tennessee until he suffered a traumatic and career-ending arm injury against Air Force in the second game of the 2006 campaign.
“Inky was just saying don’t take anything for granted,” cornerback Art Evans said. “Play every play like it’s your last.
“I always looked up to Inky since I first got here. And I just look at him like a role model on and off the field.”
Evans said it was easy to believe Johnson’s message after watching film of the former defensive back in action.
“He actually played like that,” Evans said, “like every play was his last.”
Kiffin also had a strong message for his team.
“He actually made a promise to us that we would never lose to them anymore, ever, until he leaves,” Berry said. “Whatever happens, he said he wasn’t going to let Georgia beat us.”
UNHAPPY RETURNS: Tennessee continued to struggle on special teams, particularly on kickoff coverage.
After surrendering a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown two weeks ago against Ohio, Georgia’s Brandon Boykin took one back 100 yards to the house Saturday.
The Vols hadn’t yielded multiple kickoff returns for touchdowns in the same season since at least 1992.