KNOXVILLE - Daryl Vereen doesn't exactly fit the ideal mold.
Vereen, who will be one of the few seniors for the 2011 Tennessee football Volunteers, is essentially a safety posing as one of the first-team outside linebackers. He's 5-foot-11, 215 pounds.
"On a good day," he joked about those dimensions after Thursday's practice. "It's all right because I'm in the field a lot and I'm playing man [to man] on the tight end a lot. I'm not just in the box all the time. I get used to it."
UT coach Derek Dooley has discussed his team's lack of size through his first year coaching the Vols and stressed the importance of improving that aspect in his first full recruiting class that signed in February.
His ideal size at linebacker, he said Thursday, is 6-2 to 6-4 with appropriate bulk plus athleticism. The largest linebackers now on campus are Austin Johnson and Greg King - each 6-2, 230 - and Nigel Mitchell-Thornton at 6-1, 237.
John Propst, along with Vereen and rising senior Johnson, is the other first-team linebacker at 6-foot, 219 pounds. Herman Lathers, UT's top returner at the position, hasn't practiced all spring after offseason surgery on his right shoulder.
"Austin and Daryl Vereen have probably provided the most leadership," Dooley said. "They know what they're doing, they don't make a lot of mistakes, they've come out here with a good energy level, so we're pleased with them. But we need Herman back, and we've also got a few guys coming in in June that are going to be out there competing."
Incoming Christian Harris (6-2, 235) and A.J. Johnson (6-3, 245) are closer to what the Vols' coaching staff will be looking for in the future.
"I don't think at the college level," linebackers coach Peter Sirmon said, "you can start evaluating players and say, 'OK, I need a finished product right now.' You've got to allow some growth and see what body type they are."
While Vereen, who signed as a running back as part of the hyped 2007 recruiting class, doesn't come close to that standard, he's turned a strong finish to last season into a strong spring. He started against Ole Miss and had four tackles against Vanderbilt last fall.
"Daryl just needs to keep working," Sirmon said. "He's taken on more of a leadership role and he's being vocal out here. He's got great quickness; he can rush the passer; he can cover. In that regard, he overcomes the lack of his size. We can put him in position to do those other kinds of things."
Said Dooley: "You don't want to jam Daryl up too much in the box. [That] puts him in a real bind, so we try to free him up, keep him moving, blitz him, play him out there loose in the formation; and usually when you do that he can be a productive player."
Vereen has spent much of his career lost in the mix or in a role limited to special teams, and a further UT career was in doubt leading up to the Chick-fil-a Bowl in 2009.
"Many ups and downs. I've really just tried to stay positive and tried to come to work every day," he said. "I'm not going to say it's me and Austin's defense, but I just feel like me and Austin have been here through the ups and downs of Tennessee. We're just trying to do our part to win. If our part is to push people on and carry them on our backs, that's just what we have to do."