Tennessee's Berry emerges as nation's top kickoff returner
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee's Evan Berry has become well known around campus for more than his family connections.
As the nation's leading kickoff returner, the younger brother of Kansas City Chiefs defensive back and former Tennessee All-America selection Eric Berry is making a name for himself.
Berry's average of 42.6 yards per kickoff return has him on pace to set the Football Bowl Subdivision single-season record. He has three touchdowns on kickoff returns to tie the school single-season record Willie Gault has held since 1980.
Although Gault set that mark 15 years before Berry was born, the Tennessee sophomore is familiar with the former NFL receiver and Olympian. Berry's father, James Berry, played running back for Tennessee from 1978-81 and he and Gault were teammates.
''My dad was telling me about him, and I remember watching clips of him when he was here and with the (Chicago) Bears just running, and I was like, `Man, how does he do it''' Berry said. ''Just knowing that I'm in that category with him, it's kind of a dream to me.''
Berry's knowledge of Gault reflects his keen understanding of Tennessee football history. He wears No. 29 - which is also Eric's number at Kansas City - to honor Inky Johnson, who suffered nerve damage in his right shoulder while making a tackle in a 2006 Tennessee game.
Not only are his father and brother former Volunteers, his fraternal twin, Elliott Berry, is a reserve linebacker on the current roster. Berry said he isn't bothered when people refer to him as Eric's younger brother or Elliott's twin.
Eric Berry made an inspirational return to the Chiefs after missing most of last season while being treated for cancer. He was on the sidelines earlier this season when Evan scored his first career touchdown on an 88-yard return against Western Carolina. Eric returns to campus Saturday to be honored as Tennessee's legend of the week when the Volunteers (4-4, 2-3 SEC) host South Carolina (3-5, 1-5).
''Every game's a big game, but with him being there, it makes it that much sweeter,'' said Evan, who also is a second-team safety. ''It's going to be a good one. I'll have to come ready to make plays.''
He has made plenty of plays already.
Since getting that first touchdown against Western Carolina, Berry has scored on a 96-yard return against Arkansas and a 100-yarder against Kentucky. The FBS record for kickoff return touchdowns in a season is five by Tulsa's Ashlan Davis in 2004.
''Who's kicking it to him, and why?'' South Carolina interim coach Shawn Elliott asked. ''I don't know. I told (kickoff specialist Landon) Ard, `Let me tell you one thing, it better be out of the end zone.' Because even when you kick it in the end zone, he brings it out.''
The FBS record for highest kickoff return average in a season for anyone with at least 1.2 attempts per game is 40.1 by BYU's Paul Allen in 1961. Berry knows that record is within reach but isn't dwelling on it.
''I really don't try to look at any stats or anything to clutter my mind,'' Berry said. ''I just go out there and just play hard.''
Berry said he didn't start returning kickoffs until his senior year at Creekside High School in Fairburn, Georgia, and that he hadn't scored on a kickoff return until this year. He ranked second in the SEC with 29.5 yards per return last season.
Now he leads a Tennessee special-teams unit that has a combined five touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns, the most by any FBS team since North Carolina had seven in 2013, according to STATS LLC.
''He has a great drive to be the best,'' Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
Berry also brings a bit of personality to the Vols, which became apparent last week when he wore a gorilla mask into the postgame interview room. Berry said he brought the mask to celebrate Halloween because he felt guilty about forgetting to leave candy for trick-or-treaters.
His outgoing approach is something Berry learned from his family.
Eric ''and my dad always tell me just saying `Hi' to someone could make their day,'' Berry said. ''You never know what kind of mood someone's in.''
This story has been corrected to show the location of Creekside High School is in Fairburn, not Canton, Georgia.
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.
AP college football website: collegefootball.ap.org