When Shane Vereen came to Cal in 2007 as rivals.com's No. 5-rated running back in the country, he wasn't even the best at his position in the Bears' recruiting class that year.
Vereen arrived in Berkeley along with Jahvid Best, who went on to become one of the top tailbacks in college football and ultimately a first-round NFL draft pick by the Detroit Lions. Such is the landscape at Cal, which has spent the second part of this decade churning out elite running backs.
Bears coach Jeff Tedford, a former quarterback in the Canadian Football League, has a reputation for producing potent aerial attacks. But lately it should be for developing star running backs.
Each of the Bears' starting tailbacks since 2004 has been drafted by an NFL team. J.J. Arrington, after leading the country in rushing, was a second-round pick by the Arizona Cardinals in 2005. Marshawn Lynch was the 12th overall pick by the Buffalo Bills in 2007, and Justin Forsett was taken by the Seattle Seahawks in the seventh round in 2008. Best was taken 30th overall in April.
Now it's Vereen's turn. The redshirt junior has flashed his ability in doses as Best's backup the past two seasons. He was the starting running back in the final four games last year after Best was injured, and for the season Vereen rushed for a team-high 952 yards, including 193 on 42 carries in Cal's win over Stanford.
This season Vereen is the undisputed featured running back, and that usually turns out to be a good thing.
"I don't feel pressure at all. I feel prepared, so therefore I don't feel pressure," Vereen said. "But at the same time, there's always that voice in the back of my head reminding me of the tradition of Cal running backs."
There are two primary reasons for the assembly line of running backs produced by Cal in recent seasons. One, Tedford and his coaching staff are recruiting talented players. But running backs coach Ron Gould, with his demanding yet family-oriented style, is getting players to maximize their ability.
"He prepares them very, very well," Tedford said. "He definitely makes them the best players they can be."
Gould expects his tailbacks to perform at a high level, even during the most mundane practice drills. That can be a bit difficult for players when they first arrive on campus, but soon after they typically swear by him.
"There is a level of expectation you have to play at and anything less is unacceptable," Gould said. "Our guys embrace that. They get excited when they get an opportunity to represent the University of California's tailbacks. I'd be disappointed if they didn't have high expectations of themselves."
Although a step or two slower than Best, Vereen's style is similar to the man he is replacing. He is fast and explosive, and can make plays in the open field. But there have been differences among the tailbacks that have made up the recent string of success at Cal.
"We've been very blessed," Gould said. "Each one of those guys has been very successful. They embraced what we do here. They allowed me to change them. They trusted me, and that's a good deal."
Vereen likely would have risen to the top of the depth chart much faster at a lot of other schools. But entering the program at the same time as Best forced him into a backup role the past two seasons. And it didn't sit well with Vereen when he was informed that he would redshirt while Best would play as a true freshman.
"There were days when his mom was a little upset at me, his dad was a little upset at me," Gould said. "I told Shane if he ever isn't feeling good about redshirting to come in and talk to me about it. He told me he hated redshirting. I told him if he wasn't feeling that way, I would be concerned."
Now, Vereen is thankful for his redshirt season. Not only was he coming off a torn quadriceps muscle he suffered at Valencia High, the year off allowed him to mature. It also set up the seniority ladder that would allow him to have at least one year as the No. 1 tailback after Best left.
"Redshirting was one of the toughest things," Vereen said. "I'm happy that I did it now. At the time, I didn't see it that way. But as the season went on and I started talking to Coach G on multiple occasions, I learned that it was the right move and I have no regrets about it now."
Even though he spent the past two seasons No. 2 on the depth chart, Vereen has made an impact. Tedford and Gould usually give significant reps to the backup running back, and Vereen has amassed 325 carries over the past two years. Most of those have come in seven career starts he's made while Best was injured, but he also received plenty of snaps in games in which they both played.
"I have never viewed Shane as a backup," Gould said. "Shane understood his role. He was always mentally, physically and emotionally prepared to play whenever I asked him to go into the game."
By the end of last season, Vereen was playing on a torn meniscus in his knee and a sprained ankle. He then broke a couple ribs in the Poinsettia Bowl against Utah. So there's no questioning his ability to play hurt. With that in mind, Vereen could be in line for a huge year, even with backup Isi Sofele in position to get snaps during games.
"He's been patient. He's been behind great players," Tedford said. "He came in with Jahvid, and I know there was some disappointment there when Jahvid played and he didn't. He's earned his chance to be the guy."
UC Davis at Cal, 1 p.m.
Facts and figures for the 2010 season. Page 3
2010 schedule. Page 3