KNOXVILLE - Corey Vereen's freshman season at Tennessee doesn't appear headed toward a premature end.
The defensive end, who enrolled in January and had a solid spring practice for the Volunteers, underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus Friday, and coach Butch Jones said the 6-foot-2, 248-pound Floridian could return "as early as" five to six weeks.
"Each individual's different with the healing process," Jones said following Friday's practice, "so it's really hard to set a timetable."
Vereen suffered the injury during Tuesday night's practice and underwent an MRI on Wednesday.
One of five defensive linemen in the Vols' 2013 signing class, Vereen showed some good pass-rushing ability in the spring and capped it with a four-sack performance in the spring Orange and White game.
He was recruited to play linebacker by the previous coaching staff, but the Vols' new staff started him at defensive end, where he likely had carved out a role for himself this season.
Tennessee coaches have raved about Vereen's attitude, approach and ability.
"At the end of practice, the freshmen pick up the bands after [we] stretch and the five freshmen were picking up the bands and somebody said, 'I forgot Vereen was a freshman,'" defensive line coach Steve Stripling said after an earlier preseason practice. "We forget he is still really a freshman, because really on the football field, his preparation in the classroom and all those type things is that of a senior. It really is.
"He's confident because he's motivated. He has goals. He's working toward them. He's maybe the hardest-working kid on our football team, just an unbelievable personality."
Friday was perhaps the hottest and muggiest day for a Tennessee practice this month, and Jones and some players were fired up in the heat and humidity.
The coach was all over redshirt freshman linebacker Kenny Bynum, freshman receiver Ryan Jenkins and others, and the Vols had an extended period of 11-on-11 work during the open portion of practice. Defensive end Marlon Walls recovered a mishandled handoff, but the offense found some success with quick throws to the outside. Freshman receiver MarQuez North jumped before the snap to incur a penalty flag for a false start.
At one point, Jones set the stage for a series of third-and-1 situations to challenge the defense.
"We're going to stop the run around here," the coach bellowed into his wireless microphone.
After one play, there was a minor scuffle at the bottom of a pile between tight end Joseph Ayres and linebacker Dontavis Sapp, and some offensive linemen were woofing trash talk at their defensive teammates.
It's the time of training camp where players begin to hit a wall with tired legs and sore bodies, and the challenge becomes perhaps more mental than physical.
"It's something I saw early," Jones said before wishing for hotter days for practice. "I saw some individuals dragging, so that's the time where you've got to push through. That's where that toughness is going to come.
"We talk about working to dominate your opponent.Well, you have to be able to play eight or nine plays in a row, and not just three or four and push through that. That's how you develop your toughness."
After a brief full-pads practice this morning, Tennessee will scrimmage inside Neyland Stadium tonight, and Jones said most of the work will be situational.
Quarterback Justin Worley dressed but did not throw during practice as the Vols used a planned maintenance day to rest his arm. Though Josh Dobbs floated a two-point conversion pass to freshman tight end A.J. Branisel during one period, the other three quarterbacks roundly struggled during the open portion of practice. Nathan Peterman took the first-team reps, but during one third-down 7-on-7 period, Jones told the redshirt freshman, "You're not taking advantage of the reps."
Senior defensive end Jacques Smith attended practice with his right arm in a sling and a cast on his broken thumb and was very vocal in encouraging and trying to lead teammates throughout practice.
Freshmen receivers Paul Harris (foot) and Josh Smith (knee) again worked out on the side, safety LaDarrell McNeil (hamstring) practiced fully and safety Byron Moore (hamstring) was in a green noncontact jersey.
Former Tennessee linebacker Al Wilson spoke to the team before Friday's practice.
2014 opener set
Tennessee will host Utah State to open next season, the Aggies announced Friday. The game, moved up from an early November date, will be the first between the two schools. Utah State was 11-2 and won the WAC title last season, and former Tennessee cornerback Daniel Gray transferred there this offseason.