When Southern lined up for a brief scrimmage on Friday, this was a frequent occurrence: Michael Berry sprinting past a defender, catching the ball over his shoulder in the middle of the field and cruising toward the end zone.
It borders on alarming to see someone as big as Berry (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) move as fast as he does, and that’s why he’ll be one of the most watched players in the Southwestern Athletic Conference this season.
“I just feel like this year I have to have the mentality that nobody can hold me,” Berry said.
That was largely true in 2011, when Berry finished 11th in the conference in receiving yards (508) and fifth in receiving touchdowns (seven). He racked up five plays of 25 yards or more, including scores of 56 and 60 yards.
And he did that while having to play out of position.
A week before the season opener, Southern lost three tight ends to academic issues, meaning Berry had to move inside from receiver, and linemen had to move out to tight end.
That was all well and good as Berry can tear up hapless linebackers with his speed, but mention the fact that he’ll play wideout this year, and he grins.
“I didn’t mind playing tight end, but I would much rather play receiver,” Berry said. “I’m ready to be out wide this year instead of down in the tight end position.
“I feel like I’ll have a better season playing receiver.”
That’d mean one heck of a year for the senior, who has already drawn some interest from NFL scouts. He was also one of three Southern players named to the preseason all-SWAC second team (offensive lineman Chris Browne and defensive back Virgil Williams were the others), although his selection came at tight end, not receiver.
As of now, the plan is for Berry to play on the outside opposite Charles Hawkins. But during training camp, he’s had to fill the tight end role while the Jaguars wait for Rashaun Allen to pass his conditioning test (he’ll get another chance Sunday), and once that happens, Berry will be a wideout.
There, he’ll have a different physical advantage.
He’s still fast — receivers coach Jorge Baez said scouts timed him at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash — but that advantage will be slimmed somewhat against quicker defensive backs.
But even if they catch him, Berry is a bear to bring down.
“He’s tough,” Baez said. “He showed us since Day 1 last year against Tennessee State, he’s not going to be tackled by one guy. That’s just not going to happen.”
Safety Levi Jackson, pound-for-pound the strongest player on the SU roster, backed up that point, and he knows exactly what it’s like for a defensive back to line up against Berry.
“He’s not going to go down on one tackler,” Jackson said. “He’s a big guy. He has the size of a tight end and the speed almost of a slot receiver. You don’t know whether to press up on him because he might run by you. If you play too far off, he could break it off.”
That’s exactly what the Jaguars will look for from Berry this season, if all goes according to plan and Allen — himself a 6-foot-4, 253-pound specimen — takes over at tight end.
And if it doesn’t, well, Berry can always keep running past linebackers.