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2021 NorCal Defensive Player Of The Year | Zeke Berry 2021 NorCal Defensive Player Of The Year | Zeke Berry
Able To Play Any Of Five Positions, From Safety To Defensive End, De La Salle’s Zeke Berry Was 2021’s Ultimate Defensive Weapon — And... 2021 NorCal Defensive Player Of The Year | Zeke Berry

Able To Play Any Of Five Positions, From Safety To Defensive End, De La Salle’s Zeke Berry Was 2021’s Ultimate Defensive Weapon — And More •

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7 Friday Night Podcast Season Finale

In early August of 2019, SportStars was doing its usual preseason check-in with De La Salle football coach Justin Alumbaugh.

When the subject turned to newcomers, the first name the coach mentioned was Zeke Berry. 

“We’ve got a sophomore, Zeke Berry, who’s gonna be good,” he said. 

And well, a program doesn’t win 29 consecutive section titles without being able to identify and maximize talent. 

Berry followed the cleat impressions of other extremely decorated De La Salle two-way skill players, Shamar Garrett (now at San Jose State) and Lu-Magia Hearns (now at Cal). By the time he reached his senior year, the hardest part of evaluating Berry’s talent was figuring out what he wasn’t good at.

Zeke Berry, De La Salle
Zeke Berry listens to instruction during an early August practice. (Chace Bryson photo)

“We’d have days in practice where he’d play like nine different positions,” De La Salle coach Justin Alumbaugh said “We could put him pretty much anywhere but the line.”

And that’s just what the Spartans did. 

Berry impacted the game wherever he lined up, but his biggest impact was on a defense that allowed just 31 touchdowns over a combined 133 opponent possessions. His playmaking ability and versatility led to him being a slam-dunk choice as the SportStars NorCal Defensive Player of the Year. 

De La Salle defensive coordinator Nate Kenion utilized Berry in at least five different defensive positions over the course of the season. He could play either safety spot, line up at corner, move up in the box as a linebacker and even rush off the edge.

“His versatility is something you just love to have,” Alumbaugh said. “It just creates a lot of matchup problems.”

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Berry’s position flexibility is reflected in his defensive stat line. He finished the year with 35 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and interception. His reputation what it was, opponents very rarely threw to his side of the field when he was playing in the secondary.

“10 is legit,” Folsom coach Paul Doherty told reporters in reference to Berry after his Bulldogs team completed a 28-27 comeback win over De La Salle in the CIF 1-AA Northern Regional final.

You could try to avoid his side of the field when he was on defense, but sooner or later opponents were going to have to deal with Zeke Berry. 

On offense, he rushed 32 times for 261 yards and a TD (that’s more than eight yards per carry). He also had 120 yards receiving and touchdown catch, and was 4-for-5 as a passer for 196 yards and two TDs.

He was also the primary kick and punt return specialist for De La Salle and finished with more than 420 return yards. He finished with two kick return touchdowns, including a tone-setting 88-yard score on the opening kick of De La Salle’s first meeting with Folsom on Oct. 8 (a 31-10 Spartans win).     

Khai Taylor, Pittsburg
Berry delivers a hit to Pittsburg receiver Khai Taylor during the North Coast Section Open Division Championship game. Taylor did not complete the catch. (Dennis Lee photo)

Early in the fall, Berry decommitted from Arizona and re-opened his recruitment. Michigan would win out, hoping to utilize his defensive versatility. Berry signed with the Wolverines in mid-December. 

“They like him for that hybrid safety position where you can play deep or move up in the box,” Alumbaugh said.

Which means the Zeke Berry Constant will remain: Sooner or later, opponents will be forced to deal with him.

Chace Bryson is the managing editor of SportStars Magazine. Reach him at Editor@SportStarsMag.com

Chace Bryson

Chace Bryson is the managing editor of SportStars Magazine. Reach him at Chace@SportStarsMag.com

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