Speedy 'backer

It sounds odd but a guy who runs a reputed sub-4.5 forty is really glad to be stationary this spring.

That would be Tennessee senior Daryl Vereen. Signed as a running back out of North Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, he moved to safety and redshirted as a Vol freshman in 2007. After playing almost exclusively on special teams in 2008 and 2009, he saw backup action at strongside linebacker in 2010. This spring, again playing strongside linebacker, he's running first team on the depth chart.

"I like being at one spot," he said following Thursday's practice. "I have bumped around, so I'm just glad to be here competing for a starting spot and be at a stationary spot ... Sam linebacker."

Herman Lathers started 12 of 13 games at strongside linebacker last fall but he's missing spring ball while recovering from shoulder surgery. As a result, Vereen is running first-team ahead of sophomores Raiques Crump and Robert Nelson. Vereen is hoping to distance himself from the competition in the final week of spring practice.

"The spring is when you earn your spot," he said. "By the time it gets to August and September, the depth charts are pretty much solid. Right now I'm just trying to leave my mark and write my resume."

At 5-11 and 215 pounds, Vereen is built more like an SEC safety than an SEC linebacker. He believes his speed offsets his lack of heft, however.

"I ran a 4.38 in high school," he recalled, "but that was 30 or 40 pounds ago."

Vereen says he still covers 40 yards in the 4.4s, adding: "That helps a lot, especially being an undersized linebacker, to pick up with the speed and quickness I have inside the tackles. I like my speed."

That speed is invaluable at strongside linebacker, a position which requires him to do quite a bit of pass coverage.

"I'm in space a lot, covering backs on the flare routes and covering the tight end," he said. "I'm in coverage more than in the box."

Typically, a back coming out of the backfield has a significant speed advantage against a linebacker. That isn't the case when the linebacker is Vereen. He can run stride for stride with almost every back Tennessee has.

"It does surprise 'em (at first)," Vereen said with a grin, "but everybody knows I used to play running back. They know I'm not one of those slow-footed guys. I guess they're used to it by now."

Vereen rushed for 2,603 yards and 31 touchdowns as a high school senior. Naturally, he misses the chance to carry the football.

"Oh, that's my heart," he said, "but this is where I can help the team, so I'm happy here."

Learning to play safety was a time-consuming process. So was learning to play linebacker. He finally got some playing time there late last season, recording 10 of his 18 tackles in the final four games of 2010.

"I kept asking for a chance," he recalled. "They put me out there, so I took the opportunity they gave me and tried to run with it."

Vereen showed some skills as a blitzer last fall, recording a sack vs. North Carolina and a couple of hurries against Oregon. He should be even better in that role if he can reach his target weight of 225.

Even if he can't add any more heft, Vereen believes he'll be a much more productive player in 2011 than he was in 2010.

"I feel like the game has slowed down for me a little bit," he said. "I'm more aware of what the offense is doing, more aware of what the D-line is doing in front of me and more aware of what my DBs are doing. I feel like I've got a better overall perspective of the defense this year."

Whether he can keep his first-team spot once Lathers returns to action remains to be seen. Vereen certainly takes nothing for granted.

"I never feel like that's my spot," he said. "You can always be replaced. I'm just trying to compete every day and keep it."

The Vols hold their second scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. The defense dominated the first half of scrimmage No. 1 last weekend before slipping a bit in the second half. Vereen is determined that won't happen again.

"I'm really looking for the defense to dominate," he said. "Just to play the whole scrimmage - first half, second half - and finish the game."

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