Tennessee coach Butch Jones yells at freshman defensive lineman Corey Vereen as he leaves the field against South Carolina in the Vols' upset win last October. Vereen has been perhaps the hardest-working Vol in the offseason, and that has shown in his added size and strength.Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
KNOXVILLE — Not long after Tennessee finished its first spring football practice last Friday, there was Corey Vereen in one end zone on the indoor field at the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex with a stretching band.
The Volunteers typically break into position groups and stretch with the bands after practice, but the activity is a regular part of the rising sophomore defensive end's unique routine.
That routine does make him easy to find if you need him.
"You'll always catch me in here," Vereen said after the Vols practiced Saturday morning.
Some players claim to live in their program's football complex, but it actually seems to be the reality with Vereen, who impressed Tennessee's coaching staff with his drive, maturity, approach to the game and pass-rushing ability after enrolling early last January.
He's usually in the complex by 6:30 each morning, but that's just the start of it.
Allow the Florida native to explain.
"Shoot, man, depending on how my knee is feeling, I come in here and always stretch," he said. "I might need to ice my knee. If not, I'll go to class, come back in between classes and get some fuel from the fueling station.
"After that, go back to class, come back, stretch again, whatever we need to do to get ready for practice. After that, I always stretch and always get in the cold tub to preserve my body, because my body's my moneymaker. I'm always in here, though."
Coaches and teammates notice that continual presence and the results it has on Vereen.
"Over the offseason, he's gotten a lot stronger, and he's gotten a lot bigger, too," said fellow defensive end Jordan Williams. "He's dedicated. Whatever he needs to do, he will do."
The 6-foot-2, 248-pound Vereen, who committed to Tennessee's previous coaching staff and stuck with the Vols through the coaching change after the 2012 season, was a typical three-star recruit when he arrived on campus a year ago.
He had recorded 31 sacks in his final two seasons at West Orange High School in Winter Garden, but he was coming behind three senior ends in Jacques Smith, Marlon Walls and Corey Miller.
Yet by the time preseason practice rolled around last August, Tennessee's coaches would say Vereen was their best pass rusher, but a knee injury that required surgery delayed his debut until the third game of the season, when he nearly sacked Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel on an early third-down pass on his first snap.
Against South Alabama a week later, Vereen hit quarterback Ross Matheny as he threw, and the ball sailed into the arms of Vols safety Brian Randolph in the end zone for the game-sealing interception as the Jaguars threatened to tie the game.
Vereen's lone sack of the season was of Georgia's Aaron Murray.
There were, however, a couple of costly personal-foul penalties the freshman drew against Georgia and Alabama.
"There's no substitute for experience," Vereen said, recalling those plays from 2013. "Those are big moments, and it really helped me get comfortable. I felt last year I was playing too timidly. I wouldn't know exactly what I'm doing. Now I'm faster, I'm stronger and I know what I need to do."
Moving into 2014, Vereen is a likely starter who will have to develop from a situation pass-rusher off the edge into an every-down defensive end, and he's one of the few defensive ends with significant experience on Tennessee's roster.
He and Williams, the lone rising senior on the line, jumped out to veteran defensive line coach Steve Stripling for their offseason work.
"They're self-motivated and they're kind of leading the pack, if that makes sense," he said last month. "Corey doesn't say a whole lot, but if you can do everything that he does, then you're going to get a lot done. I think Jordan has just the personality that he's really going to probably be the leader up front for a while."
Replacing the five defensive linemen who did most of the producing and played most of the snaps in 2013 is probably the Vols' biggest concern entering next season, but Vereen views it differently.
"Some people see that as a challenge," he said. "I see it as a great opportunity for our defense to get together and our D-line to get together and mold together. There's multiple guys coming back from last year who haven't played yet who can showcase their talents. I feel like it's going to help bring us together and help us work as one unit and one defense."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...