Commentary

Safety first for Mays, Berry

Originally Published: August 13, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

The working title for this college football season is fairly straightforward: "Quarterbacks Rule."

That's understandable for the following reasons:

[+] EnlargeTaylor Mays
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillTaylor Mays takes no prisoners when it comes to laying the lumber in the secondary.

1. Tim Tebow

2. Sam Bradford

3. Colt McCoy

4. Quarterbacks almost always rule, and never more than this decade. They've won eight of the last nine Heisman Trophies as spread offenses proliferate and passing games become more efficient. They are steadily producing a greater portion of the average team's offensive output.

But let me play Clarence Darrow here and speak for the defense. Specifically, the last line of defense. It's safety first on that side of the ball in 2009.

It's nearly as big a year for safeties as it is for those glamour boys who throw the football, get the girls and win the hardware. In Taylor Mays of USC and Eric Berry of Tennessee, the college game is blessed with a pair of superstar defensive backstops.

"I hope we get safeties some love," Mays said.

Love is in full bloom for the finest pair of safeties in college ball in years -- decades, perhaps. Maybe since 1986, when Miami's Bennie Blades and Purdue's Rod Woodson were All-Americans. (Back then, Woodson played both cornerback and safety.) Or maybe since 1980, when Kenny Easley (UCLA), Ronnie Lott (USC) and Dennis Smith (USC) all were de-cleating opponents in the same city. (What a truly awful time that must have been to be a wide receiver in the Pac-10 conference.)

You want safety love? You got it.

It was Berry, not Tebow, who was the leading vote getter for the all-Southeastern Conference team among the league's media members last month. In fact, Tennessee has launched a Heisman campaign for Berry -- which is ironic because many at the school remain utterly chapped that quarterback Peyton Manning lost the 1997 Heisman to the only defensive back ever to win it, Michigan's Charles Woodson.

"Just hearing that they wanted to push a campaign for me, that made me feel very good," Berry said. "I really love the UT staff for doing that for me. It's pretty cool. I like this deal."

And it's Mays, not any of USC's flotilla of five-star tailbacks and quarterbacks, who is on the cover of the school's media guide and is unquestionably the biggest name at the nation's glam program.

"I don't think anyone on defense or maybe on our whole team has seen more snaps than Taylor," Trojans defensive coordinator Rocky Seto said. "He's going to be one of the foundations of our team."

They're entertaining to watch and fascinating to compare. The similarities and differences are striking.

They're both from big cities, but opposite sides of the country -- Mays from Seattle, Berry from suburban Atlanta.

They were both considered among the very best defensive backs in the nation coming out of high school -- Mays in 2006, Berry in 2007.

They both broke a few hearts in their home states by matriculating elsewhere.

They both are the sons of former college players -- Stafford Mays at Washington, James Berry at Tennessee.

They both would have laughed at the first suggestion of a redshirt year. No way these guys were going to sit for a minute.

They're both consensus All-Americans -- Berry one time, Mays twice.

They both have been compared to former Miami safeties -- Mays' physical style to the late Sean Taylor, Berry's ball-hawking style to the Baltimore Ravens' Ed Reed. Berry himself made that comparison to me last month.

They'll both be first-round NFL draft choices, or Mel Kiper will shave his head.

They're both allergic to self-satisfaction.

"What makes him fun is how much he wants to be good, how much he wants to maximize himself," Seto said of Mays. "He is ridiculously driven."

Said Berry: "I put a lot of pressure on myself. I go in every offseason like an incoming freshman, trying to earn a spot."

They both have a surplus of personality and are comfortable in the spotlight.

"A lot of people, I think they're scared to come up to me," Berry said. "Maybe they think I'm a mean guy or they're afraid of bothering me. I had a bad experience one time with a pro athlete. I want to be the opposite of that. I was so hurt."

[+] EnlargeEric Berry
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesEric Berry needs just 15 interception return yards to break the NCAA record of 501.

They're both big fans of sushi.

"Me and him are going to see who can eat more," Mays said jokingly.

Over shrimp tempura they can discuss their differences.

Mays is a hitter, the most recent evidence being the Rose Bowl play in which he took out a Penn State receiver and a teammate with a helmet-to-helmet kill shot that drew a penalty. But he's also stunningly fast and athletic for his 6-foot-3, 235-pound size, running a 4.25 40-yard dash and possessing a 41-inch vertical leap.

"I'd like to think he's a big, I guess you could say, freak or monster," Berry said of Mays, "to still be that fast, still that athletic."

Berry is a playmaker -- we all know that based on his 12 career interceptions and the fact that he's a lock to break the NCAA career record for interception return yardage this season. But he's also startlingly physical for his 5-foot-11, 203-pound frame, regularly rocking bigger running backs with his hits.

First-year Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin has his dad, NFL veteran Monte Kiffin, calling his defenses. And Lane said Monte's assessment of Berry is this: "I don't know how he couldn't be the first pick in the draft."

For that to happen in 2010, the junior would have to leave school a year early. That is something Mays elected not to do after last season.

For Berry, the decision could be made for him by his family's financial situation. He said his mom was laid off last year from her job at a construction company, while his dad was laid off in February from Owens Corning.

There were no significant financial considerations for Mays when he made his pro decision. After an eight-year NFL career, Stafford Mays became a senior manager at Microsoft. Mays' mom, Laurie Black, is an executive at Nordstrom.

"They just wanted me to make the decision for myself," Mays said. "They were open to whatever. I didn't want to make it about the money. I had the opportunity to be a complete football player, to work on some things I haven't done."

"I'd like to think he's a big, I guess you could say, freak or monster, to still be that fast, still that athletic."

-- Eric Berry on Taylor Mays

To do that, Mays knows he needs to work on his ball skills. He didn't intercept a single pass last season and has just four in his three-year career. Part of that is a result of playing deeper in Pete Carroll's Tampa 2 defensive scheme to take away vertical threats -- the same defensive scheme Kiffin has installed at Tennessee -- but not all of it.

"I need to catch the ball," Mays said. "I don't get too many opportunities, but I need to add that to my game."

What does Berry want to add to his game? How about a cameo at quarterback, driving defenses crazy from the spread formation?

"I would love to do that," he said, comparing his high school quarterbacking style to Pat White's. "Who wouldn't want to do that?"

Mays wouldn't want to do that. He's in a committed relationship with defense.

"I love the attitude on defense," he said. "The demeanor, the swagger, the camaraderie of the players. Offense is a little more individual, because one player can make a play. Defense is really team-oriented. I love celebrating when they can't run on you, can't pass on you, can't do nothing."

Taylor Mays and Eric Berry can do almost anything on a football field. So much, in fact, that they might be able to swipe some of the spotlight from those glory-hog quarterbacks. Safety first, anyone?

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.