UNLV a special place for Vereen family
The UNLV football program rarely creates more than a ripple nationally. It holds a much more special place in the hearts of the Vereen family.
The family will have a homecoming of sorts on Thursday night when Minnesota opens the season against the Rebels.
Golden Gophers junior Brock Vereen will be playing his first game at safety, and his parents will be in the stands, watching their son play in very familiar surroundings. Vereen's father Henry was a standout, do-it-all kind of player for the Rebels in the late 1970s before being drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His mother, Venita, was a tennis player at UNLV.
''So there's genes in there,'' Brock Vereen said. ''There's a little history at UNLV. Unfortunately, on Thursday they're not going to be able to root for them.''
Brock, who was raised in Valencia, Calif., has been on the UNLV campus before and seen his father's name in the school record books. Henry was a running back, receiver and return man, and his 4,280 all-purpose yards from 1975-78 remains as the second-best mark in UNLV history.
''I've been to the campus, seen my father's ... records and all that stuff,'' Vereen said. ''But on Thursday the Vereen family is not rooting for UNLV, that's for sure.''
The athletic gene has been passed from parents to children, with Shane Vereen competing for the starting running back job with the New England Patriots and Brock moving from cornerback to safety in hopes of adding some more playmaking to the back end of the defense.
The Gophers' defense only created nine turnovers last season, which was tied for last in the bowl subdivision. So Vereen and fellow cornerback Derrick Wells were moved to safety in an effort to bring more ball-hawking instincts to the position. It's been an adjustment for Vereen, who started all 12 games at cornerback last season and intercepted one pass.
''As smooth I think as it could've gone,'' Vereen said. ''Early on there's been some mistakes and there still are, but the mistakes are getting less and less and as we're getting closer to the game, it needs to be zero in order to perform well.''
He and Wells are leaning on each other through the transition, swapping ideas and comparing notes while competing for playing time. Wells got a bit of a jumpstart because Vereen missed spring practice with a knee injury.
''We both come from the same position, going to the same position,'' Vereen said. ''Knowing both is a benefit, but Derrick has been a safety for spring. I wasn't fortunate enough to practice in spring. So I've been going to him for a leadership role, just taking everything from him that he can give me.''
Throw in Cedric Thompson and freshman Antonio Johnson and coach Jerry Kill likes the look, if not the experience, of the group.
''I think we've improved the depth at that position and our speed and size,'' Kill said. ''But it's inexperienced and they've got to go play and I'm sure they'll do some great things and I think they'll probably learn some hard lessons as the season goes, but certainly talented and worked hard.''
Their first chance to make an impact will be against UNLV's struggling passing game. Redshirt freshman Nick Sherry will be making his first career start in the opener, which could give Vereen and the rest of the Gophers' secondary some chances to capitalize on that inexperience.
''They're our quarterback,'' defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said of the safeties. ''He's always watched a lot of film, and the game has been important to him, so that was really, of all the transitions, that one was a no-brainer. We didn't have any concerns about him not being able to do that.''
One concern the team does have is the heat in Las Vegas. Quarterback MarQueis Gray struggled with dehydration issues a few times last season, and Kill has been hounded by trainers to stay hydrated on the sideline in an effort to keep his problem with seizures under control.
''We've had a few warm days, but nothing like you're going to have out there,'' Kill said. ''There's no way you can prepare for something like that. The thing you prepare for is a lot of depth, and the other part of it is you've got to plan on playing a lot of kids. And then the third thing is how you take care of your body.''
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this report.
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