Return of Views: Eric Berry’s exclusive interview; Welton, Thomas Titans candidates?; Vols’ prep for Tech

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Every move. All of them.

As he studies his film and breaks down his offseason workouts literally to every discernible movement on video, Eric Berry is then reconstructing and refining each body function in order to be an even better Eric Berry than the 2016 All-Pro, AFC Pro Bowler and more recently the guy who inked the largest-ever deal for an NFL safety but continued to work like an undrafted free agent.

Gap-time. Breaking on the ball. Eye movement. Berry fastidiously studies it all, and then in some cases the former Tennessee Vols’ All-American, Thorpe Award winner and 2015 NFL Comeback Player of the Year after beating back cancer spends a week or more on something essentially invisible to the naked eye.

“Really, I just broke it down to what is the most essential part of my position, and I just build off of that,” Berry said in an exclusive interview as he returned to Knoxville to again host his annual free camp for youth. “The things that I learn from game experience and just being in different situations, I focus solely on that.

“But at the very minimum, the base, is always being in shape mentally and physically. That’s what I build myself on. And as far as whatever I have to do on the field, as far as going in directions and moving and things like that, that’s what I focus on.”

Initially this offseason, the focus in the Berry camp — he’s repped by Knoxville-based A3 Athletics, which just saw another of its high-profile clients, cornerback Kevin King, selected with the first pick of the second round in last week’s NFL Draft — and from the Chiefs was to get a long-term deal in place. That happened near the end of February, but Berry simply has focused on his perpetual quest to improve.

“That’s pretty exciting, just being able to be a part of the organization [perhaps for his entire career with that six-year, $78 million deal],” said Berry, a three-time All-Pro and tied alongside Jamal Lewis as the Vols’ top draft pick (fifth overall) since Peyton Manning went No. 1 in 1998. “But at the end of the day, I take it one year at a time and just try to keep everything in perspective.

“That’s what I’m big on. Not getting too hype, not getting too low. I still want to do some great things in this sport and do some great things for my team, and I just remain focused on that.”

So much so, in fact, that it’s Berry’s consistent message to his younger brothers, Evan and Elliott, as they prepare for their final seasons as Vols.

“Same thing: remain focused and continue to be humble and just take it a day at a time, that’s the biggest thing,” Berry explained. “Look for the opportunities, because they always show up, and once they show up, just be ready for them and take advantage of them.”

Beyond that, Berry will continue working to make his 2017 season somehow better than his career-defining (to this point, anyway) ‘16 campaign that was punctuated by Berry’s returning home to torment the Atlanta Falcons with one of the singular defensive performances in the NFL this decade.

Yes, Berry acknowledges that the Chiefs will open the NFL season at the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots Sept. 7 in the league’s first game of the season, but he places his team objectives above any “spotlight” opportunity for a Kansas City seeking atonement for its stunning AFC playoffs loss in January at home against the Steelers.

“Honestly, I take every opportunity the same. I’m just happy to be on the field, man, and just being able to actually know that I will be in camp with my teammates this year and have that team camaraderie and just that chemistry and stuff like that and being able to go showcase our skills, that’s definitely what we want to do,” said Berry, out last training camp after the Chiefs slapped a franchise tag on their on-field star and community icon. “But it’s not about showcasing our skills for everyone else; it’s about us proving how good we are to ourselves.

“That’s the main thing, just focusing on what we need to do to be a great team this year and how we can get to the main goal, objective.”

For Berry, nothing stops that focus — even if only Berry knows what elements of his game he is honing to an even higher level.

PREPPING FOR TECH

Vols defensive coordinator Bob Shoop mentioned in his visit last month on The Nation that the Vols steadily worked to prepare for Tennessee’s season opener against Georgia Tech and the Yellow Jackets’ unorthodox offense approximately one practice day per week during Tennessee’s five-week-long spring camp.

That’s a strong testament in and of itself for the Vols’ preparations for their “neutral-site” opener Sept. 4 against GT in the still-being-constructed Mercedes Stadium in Atlanta. But that’s not all, not even close.

Tennessee has talked with Furman head coach and longtime Air Force Academy assistant Clay Hendrix about the Tech offense, of which Hendrix has strong knowledge. Before accepting the charge and running full-throttle since his hiring to restore glory to his alma mater, Hendrix and current Vols’ secondary coach Charlton Warren know each other from their time together at The Academy. Hendrix’s visit with the Vols’ coaches in March makes complete sense.

And it’s smart for the Vols’ staff to prepare as much as possible, as early as possible for that one opponent in order to maximize time working their time working their base and “magic show” packages. So it’s not really surprising, then, that UT coaches now have knowledge from picking the brains of coaches from at least two other ACC staffs — aside from Warren’s presence, with Warren joining UT earlier this year from North Carolina.

Finally, Shoop himself is no stranger to the offense from his days at William & Mary, facing Georgia Southern’s Paul Johnson-molded system. Johnson already was at Tech by then, but his system remained in Statesboro.

CONTRACT CHATTER

It was an entirely moot point for outgoing UT athletics director Dave Hart and his top aide, Jon Gilbert. Neither seriously entertained coach Butch Jones’ interest in discussing a potential contract extension and raise in the offseason before Hart exited quietly and gracefully into retirement while Gilbert accepted the top post at Southern Miss.

However, it doesn’t sound like that chatter is entirely dead. Multiple sources indicate that new A.D. John Currie is, at minimum, hearing Jones’ reasoning behind the desire for a revamped deal.

Much of it centers on recruiting, with Jones and his agent Trace Armstrong stressing the point that Jones owning just three years on his contract beyond the coming season is a certain tool against Jones — and more importantly, the UT program — if things get hairy this fall.

Jones could receive a nominal raise and a one-year extension with no alterations to his buyout to perhaps somewhat placate both sides in this matter.

Not suggesting that’s going to happen, but passing along it’s been a very real topic of discussion per sources with intimate knowledge of the situation.

SPEAKING OF OPPORTUNITIES …

No one on Rocky Top should be surprised if Bob Welton’s name doesn’t come up in connection with the Tennessee Titans’ suddenly vacant director of college scouting position.

The Nashville franchise relieved 18-year veteran Blake Beddingfield of his duties Monday morning per numerous reports, including from Ian Rapoport, John Glennon and Paul Kuharsky.

Welton’s time at UT exemplifies Jones’ most critical hire, as the Vols’ top personnel executive — among the myriad other tasks Welton oftentimes thanklessly assumes. Derek Barnett, Alvin Kamara and Joshua Malone all signed with the Vols after Welton’s arrival, and those players routinely sought Welton’s NFL expertise in deciding to exit Tennessee after their junior seasons. All were picked in the first 130 selections — the top half — of the seven-round affair. Barnett became Jones’ first recruited, signed and developed first-rounder on Rocky Top.

It’s more than just Welton’s top-notch reputation, however. He’s longtime friends with Titans’ G.M. Jon Robinson, a Tennessee native Welton knows from his time as Cleveland’s top scout for several years in the NFL. Welton, after all, won the toss at the NFL Draft that enabled the Browns to select franchise cornerstone Joe Thomas — the guy Welton always had atop his draft board that year.

Another name with Tennessee connections who should not be ruled out, per industry insiders: LSU G.M. Austin Thomas, the first general manager in college football. Thomas in recent years opted to rebuff multiple NFL entreaties, but he’s viewed everywhere as a rising star — either a future A.D. or potential high-level NFL personnel expert. Plus, he’s a Nashville native with strong ties to the community and already plenty of NFL contacts. And he’s been a major factor in LSU’s remarkable recruiting successes, which included three more first-round picks last week in the Draft.

STAFF ADDITIONS?

It will be interesting to see where UT turns to fill its vacancy atop its media relations department as Ryan Robinson transitions to the academics side and an incredibly close supporting role with new chancellor Beverly Davenport.

Robinson replaces the retired Margie Nichols in mid-May. Nichols, per records, had a 2016 salary of $220,000 as Vice Chancellor of Communications/Vice Chancellor Emeritus. Robinson, as Senior Associate Athletics Director of Communications, earned $145,000 in ‘16 per public records.

Robinson garners a more prestigious position with vastly different media dealings than the one he vacates following just less than two full years in UT’s athletics.

Where might Tennessee turn?

On campus, there are two remarkably fine candidates for the post — though there’s no guarantee either wishes for the increased headaches that accompany that spot. Veteran basketball SID Tom Satkowiak, as respected as any hoops media contact in the nation and rightfully so, is a UT grad and remarkable success story. He’s gone from student assistant to baseball contact and now is closing in on a decade atop the hoops program’s media responsibilities. He’s as good as anyone on the UT campus in any athletics position, alongside the likes of Barry Rice, Link Hudson (really, every member of the VFL Films team goes here), Joe Harrington, Roger Frazier, Allen Sitzler, Max Parrott and Jason McVeigh, to name just a handful.

Similarly, so is Eric Trainer, the most-tenured member of UT’s communications department. Trainer is fair and owns years of experience handling the school’s other most high-profile program: women’s basketball.

Tiffany Carpenter is another pro’s pro already on the UT campus and with a background of working closely with Currie.

Should UT look elsewhere, a trio of SEC staffers deserve mentioning: Craig Pinkerton, John Gibson and Tammy Wilson. All are consummate professionals, and perhaps none would want to leave Birmingham. Pinkerton is a familiar name from his time at UT, when he ran hoops’ media relations in the heyday of Bruce Pearl’s time. He’s been praised by recently retired SEC Commissioner Mike Slive for a number of the league’s basketball initiatives and commands national respect with a Rolodex that backs it up.

Jimmy Stanton, most recently with the Tennessee Titans, would be a home-run selection for Tennessee after serving as Robinson’s predecessor before accepting the top communications job with the Titans. Stanton resigned last fall but still lives in Nashville and owns a bounty of respect in this market as well as strong relationships with a number of folks still on campus.

Another name to watch for Currie’s cabinet is Blair DeBord, currently at Kansas State. Sources indicate DeBord could be in line to serve as Currie’s Chief of Staff. A week ago Currie filled a major spot with what everyone I’ve spoken with termed an outstanding hire of Reid Sigmon into essentially the No. 2 post. Sigmon owns NFL and College Football Playoffs experience among other strong career stops. DeBord is a former Kansas State baseball player now working in development.

Finally, a fond farewell to the remarkable Rita Wilson. She’s retiring as secretary in the athletics department after a lengthy run alongside the athletics directors. Good days and bad, Wilson always greeted with a smile, offered a cold water, soda or coffee and, in general, was simply among the classiest people I’ve encountered in some 16-plus years in this market.

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