Yes, yes he should. Because he did. WOO!
In 2008, Eric Berry turned in one of the most impressive seasons we've ever seen at Tennessee. He was the lone bright spot in a season of despair, the team's lone highlight reel star who positioned himself to earn national recognition even though the Vols went 5-7. Berry was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and a first team All-American at strong safety, and was a finalist for the 2008 Thorpe Award, given annually to the nation's best defensive back.
Berry was joined by Taylor Mays of USC and Malcolm Jenkins of Ohio State as award finalists. Vol fans quickly pointed out that based on statistics and overall value to the team, Berry should've taken the award easily. However, it would be Malcolm Jenkins' name that was called when the award was announced, and Berry was denied.
Take a look again at the statistical comparison of Berry and Jenkins from 2008:
- Eric Berry: 7 INT, 265 ret yds, 2 TD, 72 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3 sacks
- Malcolm Jenkins: 3 INT, 7 ret yds, 0 TD, 57 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 sack
This was an injustice, we said. Berry was clearly the best defensive back in college football in 2008.
This year, Eric Berry is once again a Thorpe Award finalist. He joins Joe Haden from Florida and Earl Thomas from Texas, and the winner will be announced during ESPN's College Football Awards show, live tonight from 7-9 PM EST. Berry's Heisman campaign fizzled, and thus far his quest to become the NCAA's all-time leader in interception return yardage has come up short, with EB just eight yards away from the record. In Monte Kiffin's defense, Berry has been moved closer to the line of scrimmage in a safety/linebacker hybrid role (which Berry likes to call "sacker"). This move, combined with opposing quarterbacks' knowledge of his presence and efforts to keep the ball out of his airspace, have kept Berry's interception numbers and opportunities down this season.
So as Berry journeys to Orlando once again to await the announcement of the Thorpe Award winner, one year after we all raised our fists over an injustice...is it fair for Berry to win it this time around?
Let's compare Berry's 2009 numbers to the other two finalists (note that Thomas and Haden played an extra game):
- Eric Berry: 2 INT, 7 yds, 0 TD, 83 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries
- Earl Thomas: 8 INT, 149 yds, 2 TD, 59 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 forced fumble
- Joe Haden: 4 INT, 20 yds, 0 TD, 62 tackles, 5 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
The statistical gap between Earl Thomas and Eric Berry isn't as wide as the one last year, where Berry had a significant edge on Malcolm Jenkins in every major statistical category and still lost. In fact, Berry and Thomas have become two very different types of players, making this award somewhat about style preference. If you go the traditional safety route and like interceptions, Earl Thomas is clearly the choice. If you want to emphasize tackles, then you lean towards Eric Berry.
I think if you removed the names and just showed the numbers, the vast majority of voters would give this award to Thomas. He is second in the nation in interceptions (no invite for UCLA's Rahim Moore, who had nine picks and got Jon Crompton twice?) and joins eight others as the only players in college football to run two back for touchdowns this season. If you included the fact that Thomas plays for 13-0 Texas and Berry plays for 7-5 Tennessee, it would further help his cause.
And look...I don't like Texas. At all. I'm still not a fan of Chris Simms, beating them in basketball didn't help, and everytime someone calls them "the real UT", I want to remind them that they're actually the "would be speaking Spanish if not for us UT". They are the non-conference team I want to play the most, now that Virginia Tech is on the books.
But shouldn't Thomas win this award?
And based on last year, shouldn't we expect Berry to walk home with the prize tonight?
Thomas, like Berry last year, is a sophomore. Berry is a junior and is destined for the Top 10 of the NFL Draft in April. And if this becomes a career or seniority award as it did for Jenkins last year, Berry has the edge. What's more, Berry has the greatest advantage over both Thomas and Joe Haden in name recognition: with over 100,00 votes, EB is currently running away with the Thorpe Award poll on ESPN's SportsNation.
If Berry wins, I'm going to be incredibly happy for him, and for us. The Vols haven't had an individual award winner since John Henderson brought home the Outland Trophy in 2000, and watched Travis Stephens get robbed of the Doak Walker in 2001, Berry get robbed last year, and we've made it this far in this post about defensive backs and individual awards without bringing up our friend from Michigan. This would be a great thing for Berry and for Tennessee.
And Berry has sacrificed his individual opportunities for the team this season, moving to a position on the field where his interception chances are very low, and still making an incredible difference for this defense. He has more tackles than any other defensive back in the SEC except Sean Richardson at Vanderbilt, who gets more opportunities to make tackles because he plays for Vanderbilt. Eric Berry is a once-in-a-generation talent who should go on to do incredible things in the NFL.
Should he win? I don't know. Will he win? I hope so.