FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After a frustrating rookie season in which he was limited by hamstring injuries and hardly played, New England Patriots running back Shane Vereen's mindset in 2012 can be summed up with one word: "Legggooo!"
That's what Vereen and his roommates at Cal used to say all the time, putting their twist on the duller "let's go."
This has a little extra zip, and it's something that the personable Vereen often writes on his Twitter account.
Ready for training camp? "Legggooo!"
Ready for the preseason opener? "Legggooo!"
Through the first three weeks of training camp, the "legggooo!" tour is picking up steam, as the humble, speedy Vereen is a player on the rise. What a difference a year makes.
"It's a completely different world this year," he said Tuesday after the team's 15th training camp practice, of which he's participated in every one. "I'm able to stay out on the field for longer than two practices. I'm able to learn, I'm able to progress, on the field as well as off the field.
"Every day I do take a walk up those steps [to the practice field], I thank God that I'm still chugging along. It's a grind, that's what camp is, but it's a great opportunity to get better, especially for the young players like myself."
Vereen, a 2011 second-round draft choice (56th overall), had a completely different experience in 2011. There was no offseason work because of the lockout, then he showed up to camp a few days late (his contract was yet to be finalized) and injured his hamstring during one of his first workouts. He never really caught up to the rest of the team the rest of the year, with fellow rookie running back Stevan Ridley -- a third-round pick -- contributing more.
When Vereen hurt his hamstring again later in the season, it was like a double whammy, setting him back again.
Looking back, he thinks he knows why he had those health issues.
"Basically I wasn't taking care of my body the way I should have. That's what it came down to. It took a while, but once I learned how to do that ... " he said, pointing to veteran running back Kevin Faulk as a crucial influence in that area.
"Then it was also figuring out what was the issue -- what was tight, what was wrong -- and then doing things to prevent it, to stay loose all the time, to strengthen the muscles that were weak, just so that I wouldn't miss any more time.
"It's just being more aware; when you wake up, how do you feel? And then staying ahead of the curve, instead of waiting for something to happen -- be proactive and don't let it happen."
For many rookies, such lessons are learned in their first offseason, almost immediately after they are drafted and attend their first NFL minicamp. But Vereen and his fellow rookies didn't have that benefit because of the lockout.
"So you don't know how to train like a professional, how to take care of your body. You might not think it's as important because, when you're young, you don't need to as much as you do now," he said.
Vereen's strides in this area were reflected in his strong performance in the Patriots' preseason opener last Thursday against the Saints. While his work came against second- and third-unit defenders in the second half, it was impressive nonetheless (11 carries for 64 yards; two catches for 17 yards), as he sliced through the defense with speed and decisiveness that nicely complemented the power of Ridley and rookie free agent Brandon Bolden, as well as change-of-pace back Danny Woodhead.
The performance caught coach Bill Belichick's eye.
"It's always kind of hard to gauge a running back in practice because we're not doing full-speed tackling," Belichick said. "The last time he got an opportunity to run like that was probably in the Kansas City game [Nov. 21], when he had some of those same kind of looking plays.
"That's the good thing about the preseason games -- you get a chance to evaluate skill players. Can you tackle them? You can simulate more of the line contact in practice, but the tackling of the skill players and them being able to not get tackled or get tackled, it's a better picture in the game. He did a good job."
Vereen's late-game carries against the Chiefs last year were an afterthought to many, the work coming at the end of a blowout victory. But if he continues to play like he did Thursday, and carries over his strong work catching the ball in practice, he will almost certainly be on the field in more meaningful situations in 2012.
He feels he's a different player now, further along mentally in addition to physically. Part of what drew the Patriots to Vereen (5-foot-9, 205 pounds) in the first place was his smarts, and how he played in a pro-style offense at Cal, so it was a little easier for them to project Vereen to their offense. They ask a lot of their running backs -- arguably as much, if not more, than any other team in the NFL.
"The offense that they run at Cal is a pretty complex system," said Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio. "They ask a lot of their skill people to do a lot of different things, so Shane had been exposed to a number of different things. We felt that he was a good fit for what we were doing."