The Best player on either team will not play in Wednesday’s San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. Cal football coach Jeff Tedford announced last week that Jahvid Best, Cal’s NFL-caliber running back, has been ruled out as he continues to rehabilitate from a terrifying concussion suffered Nov. 7.
As a result, Cal again will revert to its next-Best plan, otherwise known as better than Best, at least according to statistics in the past three games. His name is Shane Vereen. He’s a humble aspiring broadcaster from Valencia with at least two particular traits working in his favor lately: 1. He’s getting 70 percent of his team’s carries in the past three games (compared to 23 percent in the first nine). 2. He’s showing almost no signs of fatigue in consequence.
“There’s not a big drop-off,” said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, whose team faces Cal Wednesday at Qualcomm Stadium. Some might say there’s no drop-off at all. Best and Vereen are the same height (5-feet-10), weight (about 195), age (20) and roughly the same speed. Vereen is considered a more physical, straight-ahead running back than Best. But Best is the one who has gotten most of the attention in Berkeley until Nov. 7, when the future of Cal’s offense may have permanently changed.
Best, a junior, is considering turning pro and is projected as a first-round NFL draft pick in April. If he leaves, Cal (8-4) already has seen a preview of what life could be like without him. Call it crazy, but some signs show it could be better. In the first game since Best’s injury, Vereen, a sophomore, carried 30 times for 159 yards against Arizona Nov. 14. In the next game, Vereen carried 42 times for 193 yards against Stanford. When Vereen has at least 17 carries, Cal is 3-0, including Oct. 17 against UCLA, when he rushed 17 times for 154 yards. All three of those wins came against bowl-bound teams.
“In my mind, he’s always been considered a starter,” Cal running backs coach Ron Gould said. “I’m not surprised by the performances he’s produced the past few weeks.” There were signs in high school but not as many since, mostly because Vereen was Best’s backup. Best, out of Salesian High in Richmond, was rated the ninth-best running back recruit in the nation by Rivals.com. Meanwhile, Vereen had been ranked as the nation’s fifth-best running back prospect at Valencia High. When both senior prospects signed with Cal in 2007, questions were raised about how the ball would be shared between them and another top recruit. A year earlier, Cal had signed the nation’s 14th-best running back prospect: James Montgomery from Rancho Cordova. The logjam was broken up somewhat when Vereen redshirted as a true freshman while Best started eight games and rushed for 867 yards.
Then Montgomery transferred to Washington State in 2008, right before Best burst out nationally with 132 rushing yards per game last season, good for third-best in the country. Vereen ranked second on the team with 55 yards per game as the backup. The same pecking order continued this year with Best getting almost twice as many carries (141) in the first nine games as Vereen (75) until Best leapt into the end zone Nov. 7 against Oregon State, flipped over a defender and landed on the back of his head. He lost consciousness and was removed from the field on a stretcher before being taken to the emergency room with a concussion.
“It was tough, seeing what he went through,” Vereen said after a recent bowl practice at USD. “My heart goes out to him. I wish he could play with us and finish the season. But I’m glad he’s OK, and I think he’ll be OK.” Best, who finished the season with 867 yards on 141 carries, made the trip to San Diego with his team but may have played his last game for the Bears. By turning pro, he would be the latest running back off the assembly line from Cal since 2004, including J.J. Arrington (Arizona Cardinals), Marshawn Lynch (Buffalo Bills) and Justin Forsett (Seattle Seahawks). Next up is Vereen, who has 444 yards on 88 carries in the past three games. He’s majoring in media studies in hopes it will help him toward a future in broadcasting. In the meantime, his media studies are expected to increase outside of class with an expected rush of interview requests from reporters. It’s what happens when you suddenly become a star at Cal. “It’s fun,” Vereen said. “It’s a different role for me, but all in all, it’s the same preparation every week. The coaches have faith in all the backs and not just me.”