Vols' Vereen shines as nickel linebacker

Vols' Vereen shines as nickel linebacker

September 7th, 2011 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

UT's Daryl Vereen plays in the Orange and White game at Neyland Stadium.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - In the shadow of two talented and physically imposing freshman linebackers, there was Daryl Vereen.

For nearly the entirety of August's preseason training camp, Tennessee's fifth-year senior linebacker watched the hype and the headlines thrown in the direction of Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson.

But when Neyland Stadium's lights came on last Saturday night and the Volunteers began the season against Montana, there was Vereen emerging from the shadows.

"Naw, not really forgotten, just in the shadow a little bit," he said after Tuesday morning's practice. "I got down for about a second or two -- that's about it. That's about all you can get down for. I got right back to work."

Vereen led the Vols in tackles with six in the win over the Grizzlies as one of the two linebackers in the five-defensive-back package. With Cincinnati bringing another spread offense to Neyland Stadium this Saturday, the Vols likely will play plenty of nickel.

His value to the Vols goes beyond the field. Whenever coach Derek Dooley talks about Vereen, there's one word he always uses.

"Senior," Dooley said again Tuesday. "[He] didn't get affected, not the first time he's been replaced or try to get replaced. The more mature you are as a professional, the better you handle it. I'm glad he handled it the way he did. It's not surprising."

Vereen entered camp listed as a starter at outside linebacker, but the emergence of the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Maggitt and the 6-2, 245-pound Johnson seemingly relegated Vereen to a backup role. Dooley and his staff prefer larger linebackers, and Vereen, a former running back, is built more like a safety at 5-11 and 215 pounds.

He's now found a niche as UT's nickel linebacker, where his size becomes an asset.

"[The coaches] told me I'd still be a key factor in the defense, just not in the base group as much," Vereen said. "I feel like I have good speed for that position and good covering skills for that position. I can always fit in the run, so I like that position."

The Vols like him in that position as well.

"He's a senior," Dooley said, "which all the things seniors begin as far as preparation, their commitment level to the program, they know it's their last [year], the effort they play with -- he has that. And he's fast. He can go run and chase the ball down in space. He showed that last week."

Whether he's in the shadows or making plays under the bright lights, Vereen has one focus.

"As long as I contribute to winning [for] this team," he said, "that's all I'm worried about."