Sept. 14, 2009
This article first appeared in the Cal Kickoff Game Day Magazine, Sept. 12, 2009
On Cal's Fan Appreciation Day, the line of fans waiting for an autograph from Jahvid Best extended beyond the two end zones. Teammate Shane Vereen didn't garner as much attention. A few folks circled the sophomore, including alumnus Quentin Cole, who was eager to exchange hellos again.
"As a person, he was a really nice, well-spoken kid, the kind of guy that you'd like to see representing the University of California," Cole said of first meeting Vereen at the same event two years prior. Now, Cole said, "With that unbelievable speed and elusiveness, I'm really excited every time he has the ball."
In 2007, with Best and Justin Forsett atop the depth chart, Vereen donned a redshirt after leaving Valencia High School north of Los Angeles as a SuperPrep and PrepStar All-American and the No. 5 running back in the nation according to Rivals.com.
It was a different story in 2008. Vereen leapt onto many radar screens in his first game -- also his first start -- with 101 yards on nine carries in last season's opener vs. Michigan State, which he capped with a game-clinching, 81-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. On Oct. 4 he started again, racking up 93 yards on 27 carries along with five catches for 51 yards vs. Arizona State. Starting vs. UCLA Oct. 25, he added another 99 yards on the ground.
Vereen contributed to the 2008 Big Game with his first receiving touchdown, a 59-yarder, added a rushing TD in the regular-season finale against Washington and got 10 more touches (eight rushing, two receiving) in Cal's Emerald Bowl win over the Miami Hurricanes.
The latter stats, along with those from seven other games, came in a non-starting role, but whether or not Shane starts is a non-issue.
"I'm just trying to play the role that helps this team be successful, nothing more and nothing less," Vereen said. "If it means carrying the ball two times, then that's what it is. I just want to be able to help this team reach our goals."
Vereen is soft-spoken about any need to be 'the guy', but running backs coach Ron Gould has strong feelings that Vereen means as much to this team as anyone.
"Shane is definitely an intricate part of our offense and our running back corps. I'm just so blessed and so ecstatic to have him as part of this team," said Gould, who has coached seven consecutive 1,000-yard rushers going back to the 2002 season.
"I don't consider Shane as a backup to anyone -- he is a starter," Gould said. "He's a proven guy. He's very, very poised under pressure."
Anyone trying to find daylight in a rift between Heisman hopeful Best, Vereen and their collective competitive drive will be as frustrated as the defenders who reach for them in vain. Their desire is the same.
"They're extremely competitive but it's not detrimental," offered Gould. "If Jahvid runs for 100 yards, Shane wants to run for 100 yards and vice versa. They really are very close and they do work in harmony."
Best's perspective echoes that of his coach: "Having Shane as a teammate, he works hard every day and that keeps me and the whole running back group working hard."
"His style is similar to mine," Best added. "The thing he does is understand the game a little bit better than me. That's something I've been working on, just feeding off of him to get that part of my game."
Comparing himself to Best, Vereen said: "Our mind state -- the way that we think about the game, the way that we see the field -- is very similar to each other. He helps push me harder and I help push him more. It works really well for us. When he breaks a big run, I want to break a big run. It's a very competitive thing but at the same time, we're both learning from each other."
Exciting for fans and unfortunate for the opposition is the potential for both players to be in the backfield together at times this season.
"There's a great possibility that the fans might see both Shane and Jahvid out there at the same time," confirmed Gould. "To be able to utilize the kind of talent those guys bring to the table is unbelievable and causes fits for the defense."
Vereen said he sees today's opponent, Eastern Washington, as "a new challenge and in no way, shape or form will we be taking them lightly."
One thing's for sure -- no one's taking Shane Vereen lightly, either.