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In the shadows, Patriots rookie pass-rusher Corey Vereen hit home at Tennessee

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Opposite eventual first-rounder Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen notched seven sacks for the Volunteers in 2016.

Chattanooga v Tennessee Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Some in Foxborough may recall the name Jonathan Krause, an undrafted rookie in 2014 who had previously played in the shadow of the most prolific receiver in the history of Vanderbilt Commodores football, Jordan Matthews.

Matthews amassed 262 receptions for 3,759 yards during his time in the SEC, setting program and conference records. The future Philadelphia Eagles second-round pick caught an all-time Vanderbilt best 24 touchdowns as well.

Krause was not Matthews. The fellow senior wideout was, however, able to carve a symbiotic role in the presence of him. Krause started 11 games for the Commodores in the fall of 2013, putting together a career campaign with 42 catches for 714 yards and a trio of touchdowns.

Subtle but steady, Krause wasn’t an understudy so much as he was a beneficiary.

In some sense, Corey Vereen stood in a similar circumstance off the edge at Tennessee.

Vereen, who signed with the New England Patriots as a rookie free agent this May, played on the same defensive line as the man who broke Reggie White’s Volunteers career sack record in only three seasons, Derek Barnett.

Vereen wasn’t Barnett, just like Krause wasn’t Matthews. But Vereen was a three-year starter. And he, too, blossomed towards the finish line next to an eventual first-rounder whom the Eagles selected 14th overall last month.

After making nine appearances as a freshman, starting 11 of 13 games as a sophomore and seven of 13 as a junior, Vereen went on to start 11 of 13 as a senior for Tennessee.

“Pretty much just trying to build off of last year with what I was doing towards the end of the season,” Vereen told VFL Films in September, “making plays, just not really thinking too much and just going as hard as I can each play. Guys like Barnett push me in the weight room and on the field just to be productive each week.”

The 6-foot-2, 249-pound Vereen went on to finish ranked second on the team behind Barnett in sacks with seven, and also collected career-highs with 11.5 tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries and three batted passes.

Vereen tallied 36 tackles and added a touchdown off a Barnett strip-sack in 2016. He wasn’t doubled or tripled; he cleaned up as Barnett was. Playing left end when Barnett played right, and right end when the consensus All-American played left, Vereen made the most of not being the opposing offensive line’s top priority.

He ended up making no small dent in a Vols tandem that combined for 20 sacks and 30.5 tackles for loss.

“It is hard for them to control both ends,” Barnett said of being occupied by as many as three blocks in Tennessee’s November win over Kentucky, when Vereen registered two sacks, via UTSportsTV. “I think it’s hard for them to control us up front. But Vereen, he comes to work every day. He grinds. He busts his butt. So when he gets sacks, I’m very happy.”

In a three-game span versus South Carolina, Tennessee Tech and Kentucky last season, Vereen accounted for four sacks and six tackles for loss. He capped off his Tennessee tenure having accumulated 112 tackles, with 26 for loss, and 13 sacks over 48 games played.

Over the months that followed, No. 50 did not partake in the Senior Bowl or the East-West Shrine Game, instead making his way to the College Gridiron Showcase in January. He did not garner an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine in February, instead clocking a 4.85-second 40-yard dash and 4.33-second short shuttle at the New Orleans regional in March. He did not get his name called at the end of April, instead receiving $12,500 guaranteed between his signing bonus and base salary from the Patriots, as noted by the Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe.

Vereen is now out of the Tennessee periphery and into New England’s. He’s no longer across from Barnett, but surrounded by the likes of Trey Flowers, Kony Ealy, Rob Ninkovich, third-rounder Derek Rivers and fourth-rounder Deatrich Wise Jr.

The one-on-ones and the unoccupied rush lanes aren’t what they were before. Like the other 19 undrafted rookies currently with the Patriots, Vereen has a shot to hit home through whatever lane remains.