BERKELEY, Calif. -- 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.
"Shane is just as good as Jahvid," said Bears tight end Anthony Miller. "They both have that big play ability."
It's unlikely Cal's coaching staff will make a habit of giving Vereen the 40-plus touches he got against Stanford -- "It's too physical, too much of a load for anyone," coach Jeff Tedford said -- but the Bears have yet to identify a clear No. 2 back. Cal has a tradition of grooming backups -- Vereen spelled Best, Best filled in for Justin Forsett and Forsett took the load off Marshawn Lynch -- but none of the current reserves has emerged as Cal's next super-sub.
That's not the only area of concern. Under Tedford, Cal has emerged from decades of futility to become a consistent contender in the Pac-10. But the last four times Cal began the season ranked in the AP Top 25, it failed to meet preseason expectations. The Bears won't have that problem this year; reporters who cover the league have picked Cal to finish seventh in what should be a wide-open Pac-10.
Much of the preseason skepticism centers on senior quarterback Kevin Riley, who can vacillate between masterful and dreadful on a game-to-game basis. In Cal losses, dropped passes and inconsistent protection have compounded Riley's struggles. And after ranking 111th against the pass in 2009, Cal must improve its pass coverage in order to contend.
But on a team rife with question marks, one thing seems certain.
"If this team wants me to break a few big plays, I'll break a few big plays," Vereen said. "If they want me to carry it 42 times, I'll carry it 42 times. I'll do anything they want me to do, anything to help us win."
Just as his position coach long ago predicted. And just as he once showed on a Friday-night fourth-and-goal.