Tennessee linebacker Daryl Vereen is one of the oldest Vols, one of the few fifth-year seniors on a team that is roughly comprised of 70 percent underclassmen.
Age for Vereen, though, is truly just a number. He’s going on just four years of experience at linebacker.
“As a player, you’re always learning,” said Vereen, a former tailback at North Mecklenburg High in Huntersville, N.C. “But as a player that’s never played linebacker until I got here, yes, I’m learning every day.”
With Herman Lathers largely relegated to the sidelines this spring because of off-season shoulder surgery, Vereen has never had a better shot at overcoming the steep learning curve and earning a regular starting position in UT’s linebacking corps.
“Spring is really where you get your spot. It’s where you earn your job,” Vereen said. “When it comes to August, it’s pretty much set, so really this is the time to try to do it.”
Lathers’ currently vacant spot likely won’t be filled by anyone but Lathers in the fall, but there is still another opening to fill on the outside. Because of his speed and size (215 pounds), Vereen has a good skill set for the strongside linebacker position, linebackers coach Peter Sirmon said, because he can drop back and be reliable in pass coverage while also having the ability to pack a punch on a blitz.
It’s just taken some time for Vereen to hone his craft.
“He first came in as a running back. That always sounds good on paper and that always sounds good in recruiting magazines,” Sirmon said. “But that’s a big leap of faith to say guys like that can transition quickly.”
Vereen, who started once, saw action in 11 games and finished 2010 with 18 tackles, has transitioned into a de facto leader among UT’s linebackers.
Lathers has the experience and tackles, but he’s not on the field, so players such as Vereen and fellow senior Austin Johnson, another converted running back, have emerged as the unit’s loudest voices.
“I hate making mistakes, I hate embarrassing myself, I hate embarrassing my teammates,” Vereen said. “I’m just really trying to be the leader for the defense and the one they can count on to make that play when it’s time.”
Scrimmage Take 2: The Vols will scrimmage for the second time this spring Saturday at Neyland Stadium, and coach Derek Dooley said he’s hoping to see “a lot of progress” from last week’s defense-dominated effort.
But he’s not holding his breath, particularly when it centers on a Vols’ passing attack that accounted for three interceptions and a sub-50 percent completion rate in last week’s scrimmage.
“It’s pretty abysmal right now,” Dooley said. “The reality is we’ll probably hit a few plays and we’ll probably not look very good.
“I’m not being a pessimist, but when you watch eight practices and expect something totally different on the ninth, you’re somewhat a lunatic if you think it’s going to happen.”
Goins Getting Tough: Former UT men’s basketball point guard Melvin Goins said the mental part of football, not the physical aspect, is giving him the most trouble since he joined the team last week.
“I’m used to basketball and you know your plays and you know where you’re supposed to go, so you react off instinct. Out here it’s all mental and now I’m thinking a lot,” said Goins, who has worked with the secondary and faced minimal contact thus far.
“That’s not really good. You want to be able to get the plays down and know your zones and just know where you’re supposed to be at on the field. So, it’s like 89 percent, 90, mental for me right now.”
Practice Report: The Vols donned shoulder pads and shorts Thursday for the first time this spring, as they practiced for 90 minutes before hundreds of high school coaches in town for a three-day coaching clinic.
According to Dooley, they watched an “immature” football team.
“I thought it would bring a little better spirit and energy level, but it wasn’t,” Dooley said. “It was our first day in shells and generally an immature football team doesn’t know how to practice in shells.
“You put the shorts on and they think you don’t come with the same mental intensity and physicality. We have to learn what it means to practice in shells and we don’t know right now.”
Andrew Gribble may be reached at 865-342-6327. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Andrew_Gribble and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/gribble.