Gophers' Vereen provides safety blanket
April, 22, 2013
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com
AP Photo/Paul BattagliaThanks to a solid 2012 season, Brock Vereen has excelled as a starting safety for the Gophers.Anyone could see that Minnesota's secondary took a major step in 2012, helping the defense finish 12th nationally in pass yards allowed and 23rd in pass efficiency.
But could anyone identify the most invaluable piece of the Gophers' back four? Probably not.
The natural inclination is to pick one of the cornerbacks, Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, both of whom earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors (Carter should have been a second-team selection). Safety Derrick Wells put up impressive numbers (74 tackles, two interceptions, 10 pass breakups, one fumble recovered) in his first season as the starter.
But any of those players would be the wrong answer.
"Yeah, we had Troy Stoudermire, yeah, we had Michael Carter, and Michael Carter had a really good year," Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel told ESPN.com. "But Brock was the most valuable of all our DBs last year. ... Just from a calming influence, from maturity, from a steadiness of play.
"When he wasn't out there, we weren't the same."
Sawvel can't stop raving about Brock Vereen, the Gophers' senior safety who started seven games last season (including each of the final six) and recorded 64 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups. Although Minnesota must replace both Carter and Stoudermire this season, Vereen is back to anchor the secondary and the defense, which loses two starting linebackers and top pass rusher DL Wilhite.
"I need to step up and accept that leadership role," Vereen said. "That comes with confidence. It's definitely been a focus this spring. I've never been a vocal leader, so that aspect is something new, but I've always felt comfortable having guys look up to me.
"I know that I need to talk more, but at the same time, I also know some of the younger guys can learn just by watching me."
Vereen can educate Minnesota's young safeties and cornerbacks because he has played both positions for the Gophers. He spent his first two seasons at cornerback, starting four games in 2010 and all 12 as a sophomore the following year.
The 6-foot, 202-pound Vereen immediately bought in to Sawvel and the coaching staff that arrived with Jerry Kill after the 2010 season. He told Sawvel he wished he had been redshirted in 2010, as he had received little guidance as a true freshman.
"His first thing was, 'I can't wait to be coached. I can't wait to learn what a new staff is going to do,'" Sawvel said.
Vereen had a strong finish to the 2011 campaign, limiting talented receivers like Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis (two catches, 27 yards) and Illinois' A.J. Jenkins (four catches, 30 yards). In hindsight, Sawvel wished he had flipped Vereen from side to side rather than leaving him in one spot because he evolved into Minnesota's top cover corner.
But after the season, the coaches moved Vereen to safety. They had brought in several cornerbacks through recruiting, and Sawvel saw a higher ceiling for vereen at safety.
"He doesn’t have the hips of an elite corner," Sawvel said. "That doesn't mean he couldn’t play it. He could or play it on a short-term basis, but by the same token, he's extremely smart and he's a physical guy. We thought with his skill set, he has a better chance to become an elite safety."
The coaches appear to be on the right track. Vereen sat out last spring with an injury and began the season as a reserve safety, in part because Sawvel knew Vereen was mature enough to handle coming off of the bench.
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsBrock Vereen is in a football family, parents who travel to his games and a brother who plays for the New England Patriots.
The turning point came in Week 4 against Syracuse, when Vereen and the defense shut down Ryan Nassib and the Syracuse offense in a 17-10 victory.
"After that game, it was clear," Sawvel said. "It was like, 'Brock's the starter. He needs to be on the field all the time.'"
More like all over the field. Vereen can cover slot receivers, square up running backs in the hole and even play a nickel safety/linebacker hybrid role, like he did against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, when he led Minnesota with 10 tackles.
"Somebody asked me, 'What is he? Is he a strong safety? Is he a free safety?'" Sawvel said. "He's a field safety. That allows him to cover people a lot. But when we played Michigan State, they're lining up in two-back and he plays a really good game, and there’s several times where we get the ball bounced to him, and it's him and [running back] Le'Veon Bell and he won all of them.
"That's a big luxury to have, that you have a guy who can do that much."
A native of Valencia, Calif., Vereen wanted "something new" for his college experience. His older brother, Shane, had starred for Cal at running back, and Brock drew interest from several Pac-12 schools in recruiting. He ended up picking his farthest suitor, Minnesota.
Although Vereen has family ties in the Midwest -- grandparents in Illinois, cousins in Indiana, an uncle living minutes away from Minnesota's campus -- life in Minneapolis provided a bit of a shock.
"I've never been more homesick than that first winter," Vereen said. "That definitely was something I needed to adjust to. But it's been great."
Vereen's parents, Venita and Henry, spend every fall and winter weekend on the road, attending their sons' games. Typically, one watches Brock with Minnesota and the other watches Shane play for the New England Patriots. If there's enough time between the two games, they'll attend both.
"I don’t know how they do it, home and away," Brock said. "They have their little system worked out, and I just love 'em for it, all of their sacrifices for me."
Brock attends any of Shane's games that he can -- it helps that the Patriots are a perennial playoff team -- and Shane spends his bye weekend at a Gophers game. The two brothers talk daily, often about football, and Brock keeps close tabs on his brother.
"When I was in high school and he was in college, he was at the level I wanted to get to, so I wanted to know everything he did," Brock said. "And it's the same situation now. I've learned not necessarily from him telling, but just from watching him. That goes back to when we were kids. I've always been very observant of him. He's been very successful in everything that he’s done, so I've been trying to do what he did to get to the level he's at."
Sawvel thinks Brock Vereen has NFL potential, although he'll need to "put out more good video" as a senior.
If NFL talent evaluators see what Minnesota's coaches do in Vereen, he could follow his brother's path a year from now.
"He's just very valuable to us," Sawvel said. "He really is."