Give Me the Green LightThis may be Shane Vereen's first full season as a starter, but Cal's tailback has been ready since the day he set foot on campus.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Category: Sports > Fall > Football
It's a Saturday in fall of 2007, and Shane Vereen is running stick routes on the sideline. He can't bear to sit right now, even if doesn't have the slightest chance of stepping onto the field. The game is blurring by.
Step, step, step, stop.
The Cal football team's star tailback was redshirting that season, still two years away from becoming one of the best in the country. Jahvid Best hadn't tumbled over that Oregon State defender yet. Those 42 carries at Stanford Stadium hadn't happened.
But through all that time, he was always ready.
No player ever wants to sit out, but Vereen was the fifth-best back in his class - Rivals.com ranked him even ahead of Best, whom it slotted at No. 9. He'd prepared to come in ready to play, because that's what Cal running backs are expected to do.
He didn't end up earning that right because the Bears were already set with Justin Forsett, now playing for the Seattle Seahawks. Best was picked for the remaining carries, and Vereen was stuck with watching, studying, learning.
Don't get it wrong; he was never jealous or bitter. Vereen, after all, is about the most unassuming, low-key star you can imagine. But not being able to play football for the first time ever started to eat at him all the same. And while Vereen was, even then, too much of a complete team player to complain, his teammates could tell.
"I guess I can't really describe it," says quarterback Brock Mansion, who shared a redshirt season with Vereen. "There was just something that, you could just tell he was itching to get out there. If they gave him even a pair of lineman pads, he'd go out there in someone else's pads."
So could his brother.
"He never spoke of it directly, but I could tell that he was frustrated … Really, you could just hear it in his voice," says Brock Vereen, now a freshman cornerback at Minnesota who shares a phone call with Shane within two hours after every game.
Vereen found out he would redshirt about three or four weeks into that season. It's something he now continuously credits as a crucial part of his development, but these sorts of things are never easy to hear
"He was very upset," running backs coach Ron Gould says. "And the thing I asked him to do, I said 'Shane, there are days you're gonna feel good about redshirting. There are days you're not gonna feel good. The thing I want to ask you to do is, the days that you aren't feeling good, to come in and talk to me and let me know.'"
It wasn't every day, but there were some when the spectator role just didn't feel quite right to him. When he needed to, he spilled to his positions coach, telling him exactly how he felt.
"I was so proud of him … I really appreciated that," Gould says. "It took a more mature person to be able to come and talk to their coach in that fashion. Most kids would have shied away. He didn't do that. He did exactly what I asked him to do."
He still does.
The coming out party was scheduled for Nov. 21, 2009. Looking back, people should've known.
With Best out, the Big Game talk had been centered around the brilliance of Stanford's Heisman candidate, Toby Gerhart.
But Vereen never was that much different. A split second slower, an extra half-yard stronger. Either way, it was exactly what Cal needed to pull off the 34-28 stunner.
As good as Gerhart was, Vereen was better. 193 yards. Three touchdowns. And of course, every single one of the 42, leg-numbing carries that had him on crutches the next day. Career highs, the lot of them.
"After the game, I pretty much crashed. I didn't realize I carried the ball that many times until somebody told me after the game," Vereen says. "I was just so into the game, so into how things were in the game."
Now, through the most starkly inconsistent season of coach Jeff Tedford's nine-year tenure, Vereen held strong as the team's rock. He's averaging 99.8 yards per game, second in the Pac-10 and easily on pace to hit the 1,000-yard milestone he barely missed a year ago - starting only four games. He's a workhorse in every sense of the word.
Some things are still the same as they were in 2007. After all, he was always more a partner than a sidekick in the running game. ("I never viewed him as a backup. He's never acted like a backup," Gould says.) He attends meetings just as he did while redshirting, studying film and running through mental game scenarios. He warms up for every game the same way he always has. Nothing spectacular - the standard stretches and a pre-game session with Lil Wayne on his iPod Shuffle.
Some things are different. He's the heart and soul of the team now. He doesn't have quarterback Kevin Riley, whose career ended with a knee injury at Oregon State. Instead, it's Mansion who will be making his first Big Game appearance, plenty grateful that Vereen is never too far away.
"I can't tell you how awesome it is knowing that you can look to your right or look to your left or look behind you and this guy's gonna be wherever I need him to be," Mansion says. "This guy's gonna stick wherever it needs to be stuck."
After the game in Corvallis, Ore., three weeks ago, Mansion talked to his girlfriend, reflecting on the first significant game action of his career. It was an uneven showing, a dazed backup completing 14-of-24 passes in a 35-7 blowout loss.
He did learn at least one thing.
"Baby, you have no idea how fun it is to play with Shane."
Jack Wang covers football. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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