Click photo to enlarge
California Golden Bears Shane Vereen, #34, gets tackled from behind by Miami Hurricanes Glenn Cook, #3, in the fourth quarter of the Emerald Bowl on Saturday, December 27, 2008 at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif. Cal defeated the Hurricanes 24-17. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Staff)

Cal's season-opening rout of Maryland was an all-hands-on-deck effort. No hand was as handy as the Bears' catch-me-if-you-can tailback who averaged 10.6 yards on a team-high 16 touches, and who accounted for five first downs in addition to his two touchdowns.

And you know, Jahvid Best didn't have such a bad game either.

OK, that was a shameless backdoor ploy, but we did it to make a point. Shane Vereen, a redshirt sophomore, had a whale of a game Saturday night. And it surprised precisely no one.

Vereen rushed for 48 yards on a team-high 10 carries (tied with Best), including an 11-yard touchdown. He caught three passes for 46 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown. He had a 39-yard kickoff return.

He also excelled at the finer points of the game, such as, well, coach Jeff Tedford knows more about this stuff than we do.

"He really did a lot of nice things," Tedford said. "Returning kicks, caught the ball well out of the backfield, ran between the tackles very well, ran physical, did a nice job on pass protection. We're really fortunate to have two quality backs. There's really not a drop-off there."

That would be our finer point. Best, a junior, is the guy being trumpeted as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Understandably, since he's coming off a season in which he rushed for 1,580 yards and 15 touchdowns. On his second carry against Maryland, he bolted 73 yards for the game's first score. Best has a sprinter's speed and a magician's sense of the confoundingly spectacular. He wears No. 4 on his jersey; "OMG!" might be more appropriate.

The expectation is that Cal will finish this season holding some of the biggest, shiniest trophies college football has to offer. To this end Vereen is equally as valuable as Best, if marginally less invaluable.

For starters, he's just that good. While backing up Best last season, the 5-foot-10, 198-pound Vereen ran for 715 yards and gained 221 yards receiving. So while it's debatable how many other Division I programs he'd be starting for ("Most, I would guess," was Tedford's estimate), this much is fact: Vereen's rushing total for last season would have led 36 of Cal's 63 post-World War II teams.

Which is why it seems so inadequate to refer to him as a backup.

"He gets a lot of playing time," Tedford said. "It's not like he's riding the bench the whole game. (Running backs) coach (Ron) Gould does a really nice job of rotating those guys in and out. So it's not like he goes a half just sitting. He's pretty instrumental right from the get-go in the game plan."

"I love the system that we have right now," Vereen said. "I can't complain at all. I might not be the starter, but anytime I get on the field I'm trying to do as much as I can. We work real well together, I think, and the little contrast we do have between each other works really well, and it keeps defenses on their heels."

The company line is that the pair's skill sets are more redundant that complementary, but there are important distinctions to be made. Both are explosive enough to score from anywhere on the field (Vereen had an 81-yard TD run last season; Best, of course, had three of 80+). And both, Tedford insists, "can lower the pads and make the tough yards when need be."

But Best is more lightning than thunder. He's a home run hitter deluxe, and there have been times in Cal's recent past when the Bears weren't hitting home runs and needed a guy to move the chains. Vereen seems to have a nose for that yellow line most people can see only on TV.

Best of all, Vereen allows the coaching staff to keep Best as fresh as he needs to be. Listed at 5-10 and 195, Best appears sturdier this season. But he'll never evoke the images of Earl Campbell. Put it this way — there's a reason he topped 20 carries only once last year.

Whatever you think of Best's chances of winning the Heisman, Vereen makes them better. Thus the whole conundrum with Vereen and the backup designation.

Calling him Best's enabler is more like it. With a capital "able."

Contact Gary Peterson at gpeterson@bayareanewsgroup.com.