FOXBOROUGH — If Las Vegas had established odds that reserve running back Shane Vereen would touch the ball on the Patriots’ first three offensive plays against the Jets last Sunday, anybody placing such a bet would have multiplied their money many times over.
Vereen came into the game with two carries on the season (1 total yard) and one reception (5 yards). His career numbers to that point (18 touches, 63 yards) were also unimpressive. Safe to say the Jets weren’t exactly game-planning defensively for him.
So what happens?
First play: Vereen 10-yard pass from Tom Brady.
Second play: Vereen 14-yard rush.
Third play: Vereen 1-yard rush.
It’s also safe to say that after Vereen’s opening three-play burst, when he gained 25 yards in less than 30 seconds, more than a few Patriots fans inside Gillette Stadium — and many watching on television — were sheepishly asking, “Who is this guy?”
More know now, after Vereen’s coming-out party. In the Patriots’ 29-26 overtime win, the second-year pro from California rushed for 49 yards on eight carries, and had the 10-yard reception. This came two weeks after his only touchdown of the season, a 1-yard score in a home win over the Broncos.
With a knee injury sidelining rookie Brandon Bolden, an opportunity for playing time presented itself. Vereen, finally healthy, was ready to take advantage.
“Every time I put the uniform on, you get real excited,” Vereen said. “You get fired up and ready to play.”
That’s been the problem, ever since the Patriots used a second-round draft pick on Vereen in 2011. He has been mentally ready to play, but physically unable. He missed nine regular-season games his rookie season, plus all three playoff games, including the Super Bowl. Then he missed the first three games this season with a foot injury.
“Obviously, it’s something that I’ve struggled with, but hopefully, I’ll be able to put it behind me,” Vereen said. “When you’re faced with an injury like that, you’re kind of removed — you’re not out there all the time. So in order to stay engaged with what’s going on, you do have to stay mentally involved with the team.”
Vereen rushed for nearly 3,000 yards and scored 29 touchdowns in just three seasons at Cal. Degree already in hand (he red-shirted as a freshman), Vereen decided to skip his senior season and declare for the NFL draft, building the kind of college portfolio that attracted plenty of NFL interest, including from the Patriots.
“Shane’s a smart kid,” said coach Bill Belichick. “He’s an elusive guy, he’s got good balance, plenty of strength for his size, not the biggest guy, but plenty of strength.
“He gives us some versatility there. I think he’s able to run inside, run in some traffic, but he’s a good space player, on the edge and in the passing game.
“When he’s had an opportunity to play — unfortunately, he hasn’t had a lot of opportunities over the last year and a half — but the ones he’s had have been fairly positive.”
Has it been difficult for Vereen to stay patient as he nursed his body back to football health to kick-start a career that seemed to have so much promise?
Vereen’s emergence — granted, it has been only one game — can help a Patriots running attack that now goes four deep, and has more yards on the ground than all but four teams in the league. Stevan Ridley (three 100-yard games), Bolden (5.4-yard average), Vereen (5.0-yard average), and Danny Woodhead (348 all-purpose yards) give the Patriots the ability to rotate backs and send in fresh legs.
“We always try to feel fresh,” Woodhead said. “It might be true. I don’t think that’s anything we probably think about during the game. We’re just trying to go out and execute.”
Ridley might remain the featured back, but any production Vereen can provide only increases his opportunity. It’s exactly what Belichick is hoping for.
“Not that I hope anything happens to anybody else, but hopefully he’ll get more opportunities, because I think he can contribute for us,” Belichick said. “He’s done a good job when he’s had a chance. He just hasn’t a lot of opportunities.
“I would say more of it is Shane being healthy and Shane being ready to go than waiting for something to happen to somebody else. It’s more a case of him really not being able to go out there and be the player that he is.
“Hopefully he’ll be able to . . . stay out there, because I do think he can be productive, regardless of who else is out there. He’s a good player in his own right, without waiting for someone else.”
Those are the kind of supportive words Vereen has heard since arriving in Foxborough, and he said they’ve helped him make the transition from college to the pros.
“It’s been huge,” Vereen said. “Without that support, the transition isn’t as easy, sitting out isn’t as easy. But they’re all very supportive and they helped me get back to where I need to be. I love the running back room and we love each other. It’s a fun atmosphere to be in.”
And even better when he gets in the game and does well. Of course, it means that other teams — starting with the Rams, who face the Patriots on Sunday at Wembley Stadium in London — will start paying more attention to him.
One game was nice, but it didn’t satisfy Vereen. In fact, after watching the film, he came away unimpressed.
“I have to get a lot better,” he said. “I did some good things, but all in all, there’s a lot of things I need to correct.”