ATLANTA — Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin believes Eric Berry will play in the NFL next year.
Virginia Tech is just trying to figure out what position Berry will play on Thursday night.
Berry, a junior safety, could play his last game for Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia Tech. He is projected as a high first-round pick if he enters the NFL draft. Most mock drafts list Berry among the top five picks.
Berry said the draft decision is “kind of made.” He said he wants to play the bowl game in his Atlanta hometown before he discusses his plans.
“I want to focus on Virginia Tech,” he said.
Virginia Tech’s biggest concern is following Berry on the field. He has 14 career interceptions but the safety often plays in the middle of the defense like a linebacker.
“We’ve asked Tennessee to put a little red light on top of Eric and so we’ll know where he is all the time,” Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring joked Tuesday. “They haven’t really gotten back with us to let us know if they’re going to do that.”
Berry (5 feet 11, 203 pounds) is an effective run-stopper. He is second on the team with 83 tackles, including six for losses.
“From what I’ve seen they use him more like a linebacker, putting him in the box,” Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor said. “He’s a big hitter. He’s strong in defending the running game.
“We know he can run the field and he does cover the field well. But as far as the tapes I’ve seen, he’s down playing linebacker and he gets to the ball quick.”
Free safety? Strong safety? Linebacker? Nickel cornerback? Return specialist? Berry has filled each role, and Kiffin said the junior’s versatility will pay off big in the draft.
“What Eric has done such a remarkable job of is the ability to do so many different things and to put that on film,” Kiffin said. “Your film is your resume. ... You’re going to have to do the things that the NFL wants to see when they come to watch your film.
“Eric’s played man-to-man coverage, we’ve blitzed him, he’s played back in the middle and he’s played down. So to be able to do all those things and then also to play on our special teams as many snaps as he has, he’s created a lot of draft value for himself.”
Berry smiled as he heard Kiffin add “I would think he’d go extremely high — whenever he leaves.”
When making a bowl appearance in Atlanta earlier this month, Kiffin said “I would anticipate him probably not being with us next year.”
Kiffin said he won’t try to convince Berry to return for his senior season.
“This may be the only conversations that I don’t recruit in, is with these guys because it’s too important for them to make the right decision,” Kiffin said. “This isn’t about me and it’s not about Tennessee. This is about Eric and Eric’s family.”
Kiffin said he advised the junior to seize the NFL opportunity.
“I told him from my perspective he’s done everything he can do,” Kiffin said. “If he wants to go, this is the time to go. I would never want to hold someone back from that, because it would be real hard to live with yourself if you tried to convince someone to stay and then something happened to him injury-wise and they weren’t able to get what they had worked so hard for.”
Berry said he has been thorough in studying his options.
“I really just wanted to make sure there was no stone unturned,” he said. “I sat down with Coach Kiffin and talked about it and talked with my family and talked with some of my close teammates and friends about the whole situation. I wanted to make sure I weighed every possible scenario or situation that could happen.”
Berry won the Jim Thorpe Award honoring the nation’s top defensive back earlier this month. He was a first-team All-America selection by The Associated Press.
Kiffin said it’s a compliment to Berry that he won the Jim Thorpe Award even though only two of his 14 career interceptions came this season. He had seven interceptions in 2008 to lead all FBS players.
The 14 interceptions rank fifth in school history and third among active NCAA players.