By Jordan Conn
When college recruiters visited Shane Vereen at Valencia High in the fall of 2006, most saw him as a change-of-pace speed back. The fast but undersized Vereen had the tools to make plays, scouts believed, but lacked the frame to carry a team. Cal running backs coach Ron Gould saw something different. "I was standing in the corner of the end zone, with the team on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard-line," Gould said, recalling his Friday night trip to the Southern California school. "They gave him the ball on a fly sweep, and he got hit two yards in the backfield. He fought his way out of that and then got hit again at the line of scrimmage, and he just carried a guy into the end zone."
Not exactly the performance you'd expect from scatback. "His passion and determination and commitment to get into the end zone was incredible," Gould said. "You saw his toughness right there."
Gould believed Vereen had the tools to carry a team. At the very least, Vereen had shown he had the toughness to carry the ball -- and a couple of defenders. Four years later, the veteran Bears assistant appears prophetic. After redshirting and spending most of two seasons backing up Jahvid Best, Vereen stepped into the starting role when a Nov. 7 concussion ended Best's 2009 season. During that trial run, Vereen showed he could take the pounding required of a featured back without losing the speed and elusiveness that made him so dangerous.
Vereen averaged 142 yards over the final four games of the season, including a 193-yard, three-touchdown performance in a road upset of rival Stanford in The Big Game. Against the Cardinal, Vereen outgained Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart while carrying the ball 42 times, the most of any Pac-10 running back all season. "I didn't even realize I had carried it so much," Vereen said. "When you're in the game, in the rhythm of things, it just comes to you. You're not thinking about that. It goes by so fast. You're just playing football." Best's NFL exodus should make things easier on observers who, for the last couple of years, struggled to tell the two Cal backs apart. Both stand 5-foot-10 and weigh about 200 pounds, and both possess sure hands, breakaway speed and deceptive toughness.
There are differences, of course. Best has run the 100 meters in 10.31 seconds. Vereen's top time is 10.4. Best has one or two more open-field moves. Vereen carries a couple weight-room reps worth of extra muscle. Best likes to look at the safeties first when he hits the hole. Vereen prefers to read the linebackers. But production-wise, Cal is confident all things are equal.