- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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Shane Vereen wasn’t even California’s top running back the last two seasons, but he's managed to make quite an impression on UCLA.
Playing the backup to Jahvid Best, Vereen had 154 yards rushing last year in a 45-26 victory over the Bruins and in 2008, he had a 56-yard touchdown run in 41-20 Cal victory over UCLA. He is averaging more than eight yards a carry against UCLA and that could be because he has a little extra motivation against the Bruins.
Vereen went to Valencia High School in the Santa Clarita Valley and said it's always special going up against a team from near his home town.
"This is a humongous bragging-rights game for me," Vereen said. "A lot of my best friends are on that team so this game is huge. I always circle it on my calendar, I always look forward to it and it's going to be fun."
Now that Best has moved on to the NFL, Vereen is the featured back for the Golden Bears. He’s averaging 106.5 yards rushing per game to rank third in the Pac-10 and he leads the conference with eight touchdowns (six rushing, two receiving).
For the last two seasons, Vereen has been playing second fiddle to Best, now with the Detroit Lions. Still, he’s managed to make the most of his opportunities. He had 952 yards rushing last season -- including 566 in the last four games when Best was out with an injury.
In 2008, he rushed for 715 yards in a backup role while Best led the Pac-10 in rushing with 1,580.
"He's a big time player," UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel said. “[California] over the years has been as good as any in the two-back running game. ... It’s one of the great challenges we face every year is matching wits with the Cal offensive coaches.”
The second back so far this season has been Isi Sofele, but he has only 22 carries for 110 yards in four games. Vereen, with 76 carries, has clearly become the main man for the Golden Bears.
“He’s the focal point of Cal’s offense,” UCLA linebacker Patrick Larimore said. “They try to give him the ball in a lot of different ways so we’ve got to keep an eye on him and focus on keeping him in check.”
But that won’t be easy, and nobody knows that better than Larimore, who spent two years trying to do that in high school when Larimore played at Hart High in Newhall, a crosstown rival of Vereen's Valencia.
“He was obviously one of the better running backs in the country in high school but he’s gotten lot bigger and stronger,” Larimore said. “Watching on tape, he makes a lot of explosive runs and he makes people pay for mistakes on defense.”
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