KNOXVILLE - Asked if he liked his performance in Tennessee's scrimmage Friday afternoon in Neyland Stadium, defensive end Corey Vereen smiled and nonchalantly shrugged his shoulders.
"More or less," he added with a laugh.
The sophomore stood out on an up-and-down day for the Volunteers' defense in the first spring scrimmage, racking up a couple of sacks and scooping up a fumble by quarterback Josh Dobbs forced by linebacker Kenny Bynum and returning it for a touchdown.
"I have a lot of stuff to work on with Coach Strip [defensive line coach Steve Stripling]," said Vereen, who flashed his ability as a pass-rusher off the edge as a freshman last season. "As far as technique's involved, I have a lot of stuff to work on, but it was a good, productive day today."
Tennessee's defensive coaches will feel the same way after their unit struggled at times and thrived at others.
The Vols' offense drove for a touchdown and a field goal on its first two series of the afternoon, before the defense answered with two stops, one aided greatly by a sack by freshman D'Andre Payne. He came free on an edge blitz from his nickel spot.
After Dobbs and freshman tailback Jalen Hurd essentially ran the offense down the field against the defensive starters, head coach Butch Jones barked out "Too easy!" and "They're soft!" over his wireless microphone and made the defense replay a short-yardage situation at the goal line three times until it got a stop.
The defense later forced consecutive three-and-outs, with George Bullock clanking a 34-yard field-goal try off the left upright. Curt Maggitt, who lined up at both linebacker and defensive end all afternoon, followed Vereen's sack of Justin Worley with another pressure of the quarterback.
After Tennessee's offense later scored four consecutive times on possessions that began 25 yards from the end zone, the defense ended the scrimmage with three straight stops, the first of which was Vereen's score.
"We've really challenged him to bring a presence off the edge," Jones said. "He's been playing exceptionally high right now. He's been playing too high. Our entire lines of scrimmage in terms of offensive and defensive lines have been playing too high, so we've really challenged them. I thought Corey had a little bit more explosiveness coming off the football today."
On both of his sacks, Vereen beat left tackle Dontavius Blair, a junior college transfer who arrived in January.
"It was definitely back and forth with me and him," Vereen said. "I like him, because he's a competitive guy. He's always there. He's quick off the ball as well, in pass protection, so I love going against him every day."
Marlin Lane's wrist injury opened more opportunities for newly arrived five-star recruit Hurd, and he certainly showed out well Friday afternoon.
He ran with toughness and moved some piles on some inside runs and showed a good burst and the ability to make defenders miss when be broke into the second level of the defense.
"I feel he did very good, just getting out in the open and making people miss," quarterback Riley Ferguson said. "That's what he does. He's a big body, he can run fast and that's what we need."
The 6-foot-3, 227-pound Hurd made safety Devaun Swafford whiff on a tackle on a run of about 25 yards midway through the scrimmage and finished off the drive with two more runs. He later drew some oohing and hollering from the offense's sideline with a juke in the second level.
"I just think he needs to keep calm, whenever he's back there, and keep his eyes up and read the holes," center Mack Crowder said. "I think he got spooked a few times today, but overall he was running very, very hard. He definitely was hitting some holes. I was very proud of him.
"He's definitely working very hard, and I think once again he just needs to calm down and realize that he has the ability to do it and make big plays."
Jones said Hurd, who missed his senior senior of high school after having shoulder surgery, has shown some playmaking ability early in spring practice.
"He's working himself back into football shape, and there's a difference," the coach said. "He hasn't played football in a year with recovering from the surgery. Each day of practice, I see him getting better and better. I see the improvement coming, but also I see the confidence now getting in him. He understands what he needs to work on."
Big day for Bynum
Bynum, a redshirt sophomore linebacker who played in just four games last season, popped up on a couple of big plays.
In addition to his sack-fumble, the 6-1, 247-pounder pushed an offensive lineman into Peterman to force him to trip, and he sacked Ferguson on a fourth down to end the scrimmage.
"Kenny has really like redesigned his whole body," Vereen said. "He went home for break, and he came back a lot of pounds lighter. He did everything right over the break. He's really bought in, and I can speak for that for Kenny.
"I see him every day, and it really shows up on the field with that sack, everything he's doing in the weight room and running-wise and keeping himself in shape. He can really help us."
Lane has missed the last two days of practice, but with the Vols off until March 25 due to Tennessee's spring break, the senior will stay in Knoxville to rehab.
"We fully anticipate him to finish spring football," Jones said, "but a lot it how the bone heals in the next 10 days."
Sophomore defensive tackle Jason Carr, who wore a hard cast on his right wrist/hand, and redshirt freshman end Malik Brown, who underwent wrist surgery late last fall, did not scrimmage.
Tailback Devrin Young received some attention from trainers after taking a hit early in the scrimmage and did not return.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com