Promising Tennessee freshman defensive end Corey Vereen underwent successful knee surgery on Thursday and doctors are optimistic he could return to play this year, a person familiar with the injury told the News Sentinel.
The person spoke on condition of anonymity because UT has not yet publicly released information about the injury.
Vereen suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament, a ligament in the knee for which recovery time can vary greatly. But UT was confident after surgery that the injury won’t end his season and recovery time could be as quick as six weeks, depending on rehabilitation.
A native of Winter Garden, Fla., Vereen was expected to push for playing time at the “Leo” end spot, which is a linebacker-end hybrid position meant to take advantage of speedy and athletic linemen.
Vereen’s absence comes at a bad time. Jones announced on Wednesday that starting Leo end Jacques Smith had undergone surgery for a fractured thumb on his right hand. Smith is expected to miss 4-to-6 weeks, although Jones said there was at least a chance he could return by the Aug. 31 opener against Austin Peay.
Vereen graduated from high school early and enrolled at UT in January, and coaches raved about his performance in spring practice.
Tennessee defensive line coach and associate head coach Steve Stripling, who has more than 30 years of coaching experience, said Vereen was one of the hardest-working young players he’d ever coached.
“I love him,” Stripling said. “I promise you, at nine o’clock at night you’ll find him in (the football complex) doing something. He is the most motivated freshman I’ve ever seen in my career. He is unbelievable.”
Junior Jordan Williams was listed as Smith’s backup on the preseason depth chart. Other options could be veterans Marlon Walls and Corey Miller and freshman Jaylen Miller.
“We have some veterans at that position that have played a lot of football here,” Jones said on Wednesday.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him on Twitter.