2009’s Best of the Best: Safeties
Once thought of as the “last line of defense” the evolution of the safety has seen the position morph from a passive “just-in-case” player to the aggressive, ball-hawking, slobber knockers that populate the game today. Guys like Florida’s Major Wright, Georgia Tech’s Morgan Burnett and Virginia Tech’s Kam Chancellor are among the games most lethal combination of power and finesse; as the safety position calls for strength in the run game and fluidity in covering the pass.
Although Wright, Burnett and Chancellor may round out the top five safeties in the game there are two names that sit atop the mountain as the college game’s best safety:
Eric Berry and Taylor Mays
Two physically different players both vying to be the best safety in the land, let’s take a look at their games to see which player truly is The Best of the Best.
Eric Berry (5’11”, 203 lbs)
Watching Eric Berry play safety is like watching a master chef in the kitchen or a cellist work the bow and strings. You know there’s something inherently superior about the way they perform their craft even if you cannot always put your finger on what that “it” happens to be. With Berry the first word that comes to mind is fluid, the kid moves effortlessly in the back end. His transitions from back pedal to breaking on the ball, opening his hips and mirroring the quarterback display an experience and savvy beyond his years.
As a first team All-American Berry paced the nation with seven interceptions, bringing his two year total to twelve including three that he’s returned for touchdowns. No one in the college game turns defense into offense the way Berry does; he’s a mere fourteen yards shy of breaking the NCAA interception return yardage record. Berry truly possesses a nose for the ball and the soft hands that make him a one man interception machine.
However, the junior from Georgia isn’t just a ball hawking return man; he’s also a one man wrecking crew as evidenced by his youtube highlight reel.
Berry, though somewhat small in stature at 5’11”, is a human missile on the field. He flies to the ball and delivers a wallop when he gets to the pile. He is active against the run, posting 72 tackles in 2008 as well as 5.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks. Berry makes great run fits and is a very sure tackler for the Volunteers.
Taylor Mays (6’3”, 230 lbs)
If Eric Berry is a cellist then Taylor Mays is a speed metal guitarist; a one man wrecking crew out to bully, intimidate and make everyone feel serious pain. Mays is the best physical specimen in the nation, at any position and perhaps in any sport. With 4.3 speed at 230 pounds and 6’3” the guy is the epitome of the word prototype. He has the nasty attitude needed to shut down the middle of the field and his punishing hits have sidelined several players.
The aggressive style coupled with his size makes Mays a true enforcer; his pass covering abilities are centered largely on his knack for separating the man from the ball. The nine pass break ups a season ago show that the senior is more than capable in coverage.
Taylor also excels in run defense, he takes great pursuit angles and with his amazing speed he closes down rushing lanes very quickly. While his tackle totals aren’t as high as Berry or the other elite safeties it must be noted that he had to contend with three first round linebackers for tackle stats the last three seasons. His numbers will undoubtedly increase in 2009 as the new linebackers grow into their roles.
In studying the games of the two players there are plenty of similarities such as playing the game in violent fashion with reckless abandon and a passion for being the best. However, their differences are what make the separation fairly clear. Although Mays is clearly the best physical talent in the game it is Berry who is currently the nation’s best safety.
Mays is more of a hitter than a tackler and while he may be a legendary work out warrior he doesn’t possess the hip flexibility and fluidity in change of direction that Berry has mastered as a junior. Though the difference on paper is subtle the divergence manifests itself in the numbers; Berry’s twelve career interceptions trumps Mays’ four total picks in three seasons.
Both players are outstanding and either is a true coaches dream, when it comes to differentiating between number one and number two it honestly boils down to production. Mays has all the tools to be the greatest safety the game has ever seen however his talents haven’t led to the production that the smaller Berry has put up in just two seasons in Knoxville.