Some nights when Vols head coach Butch Jones heads home after a double-digit-hour workday, he'll see Tennessee freshman defensive end Corey Vereen running wind sprints in the indoor complex.
After he tore his meniscus during preseason practice, trainers feared the 6'2", 248-pound Winter Garden, Fla., native wouldn't be himself until midseason.
Vereen played seven snaps against Florida.
"He is hungry for greatness," Jones said at his press conference last week. "He has that inner drive that the special players have."
Flash-forward to this past Saturday. Tennessee narrowly led South Alabama 31-24 in the waning seconds. The Vols had to have a massive defensive play with the Jaguars facing 4th-and-goal in the final minute of their comeback attempt.
According to a tweet by GoVols247's Ryan Callahan, Vereen applied the pressure on the decisive interception to seal the win.
#Vols freshman DE Corey Vereen gets pressure on fourth down, forcing errant throw from Metheny, and Brian Randolph picks it off in end zone.— Ryan Callahan (@RyanCallahan247) September 28, 2013
"You find out about your team in critical stretches," Jones told the media after the game. "That was a pressure situation."
That's a big reason the Vols had Vereen on the field—because of the way he has consistently responded to adversity since arriving in Knoxville last December.
Coaches have lauded the freshman as UT's best pass-rusher. With Aaron Murray and the dangerous Georgia Bulldogs coming to town, Vereen's training wheels must come off.
He already gets to the quarterback better than anybody UT has had since current Denver Bronco Robert Ayers, and he hasn't even been playing fully healthy. That may seem like high praise for a reserve who has yet to register a single tackle in parts of two games, but coaches aren't just paying lip service.
Vereen represents hope for a UT team that hasn't had an impact pass-rushing presence in years. In 2012, the Vols were tied for 104th in the nation with 17 sacks, according to ESPN.com. UT had just 16 sacks in 2011, good for 102nd.
Though the Vols still aren't setting the world on fire, they have seven sacks this season, and that is largely without Vereen being on the field. UT can't afford to keep him on the sideline.
Senior Jacques Smith currently starts, but Vereen appears poised to get in that starting lineup quicker than most think, much the way he recovered from the meniscus injury.
UT defensive line coach Steve Stripling told GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required) that Vereen's recovery was nothing short of remarkable. He also noted that Vereen is the hardest-working freshman he has coached in 30-plus years of Division I football.
"To be honest, I think with his type of injury, this is the quickest I've ever seen anybody come back," Stripling said. "So that just goes with his mentality, his preparation, and how he takes care of his body."
Vereen's work ethic, ability and talent make it difficult to believe that he was lightly recruited as a high school senior in the Orlando area. He was rated a 3-star prospect by 247Sports and committed to the Vols and former defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri in early January 2013.
Sunseri loved his potential as a linebacker in his 3-4 scheme and didn't care that the only other offers from traditionally strong programs were Clemson, Georgia Tech and Ole Miss.
Following with the theme of overachieving, Vereen graduated high school early and enrolled at UT midterm. It took just days into spring practice for Jones and his staff to move Vereen to end. It took less time than that for him to draw rave reviews.
Now, heading into an all-important game against Georgia, Jones continues to call Vereen by name as being a key. Murray is a future NFL quarterback, and Jones knows UT must harass him into hasty decisions.
If we give him time to sit back and throw the football it's going to be a long day. I really liked our mentality and the end of the (South Alabama) game, and now it's the same thing about each play having a life of its own. We need to come off the football in obvious pass rush situations with a mentality that the game is on the line.
I saw a whole other speed level off the rush, off the edges from Corey Miller and Corey Vereen. I thought Vereen gave us some really valuable repetitions.
The Vols don't have the luxury of bringing Vereen along slowly. They need him to be the dynamic player they've witnessed, and they need it now.
It's a tall task for any freshman, but, thus far, it appears he's up to the challenge.
All quotes were transcribed via videos posted on UTSports.com, unless otherwise noted.
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