FOXBOROUGH — Shane Vereen stood on the Gillette Stadium sideline as a cavalcade of Patriots running backs stepped onto the field in the first half of Thursday night’s preseason opener against the Saints.
Stevan Ridley started. Undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden entered with the second-team offense. Danny Woodhead converted a third-and-2 on the opening drive. Fullback Eric Kettani saw time, too.
But when Vereen finally got his moment in the second half, he starred.
Though playing against New Orleans’ second- and third-string defense, Vereen was still instrumental in orchestrating a 97-yard touchdown drive in the Patriots’ 7-6 victory.
“I wouldn’t say I was surprised,” Vereen said of his playing time. “The coaches do a good job of keeping you prepared and they tell you to stay prepared for the whole 60 minutes and mentally I was prepared.
“I was able to play a little bit on special teams, so that helps. I think more important than physically staying ready is mentally staying ready, and I was able to do that.”
Vereen flashed quickness to the gaps and vision in the backfield, traits some considered absent throughout training camp.
And Vereen found himself answering postgame questions at the podium, rather than in front of his locker.
“It felt good,” said the second-year back out of California. “It was the first time to finally strap it on and go live. I think everyone felt really good out there.”
The Patriots are looking to fill the void created when BenJarvus Green-Ellis signed a three-year deal with Cincinnati. Ridley was solid Thursday, carrying eight times for 40 yards in the lead role. Vereen had 11 carries for 64 yards.
“When the coaches call your number, you’ve got to go out there and make a play and that’s all I’m really trying to do,” Ridley said. “There’s really no time to be uncomfortable. You’ve just got to be out there and make the best out of every opportunity that they give you.
“Nobody is going to be perfect, but we just go out there and try to get better. We ended up with a win at the end of the day, so I think we did our job.”
The Patriots opened the second half on their 3-yard line, and Vereen broke free from Saints defensive tackle Akiem Hicks on second down for a 7-yard gain. On the next play he caught a 10-yard pass for a first down, and later added an 18-yard run to get the Patriots to midfield.
On first down from the Saints’ 41, Vereen found the open field on a draw play for 14 yards, and pushed New England into the red zone with a 10-yard gain. Two plays later the Patriots had a touchdown.
“He had some great runs, some great cuts. The line really got off the ball really well,” quarterback Brian Hoyer said. “We were trying to go fast, and they were doing really well with that.
“You see him get out there, make a few cuts, break a few tackles, and that’s what got us going.”
It’s taken plenty of time for Vereen to get going after an injury-plagued rookie season. The former second-round pick had just 15 carries for 57 yards and a touchdown.
“I was excited because it’s been so long since I played with the injuries and everything, but I just wanted to go out and perform as well as I could with the team,” Vereen said.
“Every now and then, when stuff comes up that we haven’t handled before, you tend to feel like a rookie.”
Vereen is a more capable receiver than Ridley, and with Josh McDaniels figuring to incorporate screen passes more into his offensive scheme upon returning to the Patriots, Vereen’s role could very well be enhanced. In college, he had 74 receptions over three seasons at Cal.
But those hunting for competition between Vereen and Ridley would be hard-pressed to find it.
“More than trying to one-up each other, I think we learn from each other,” Vereen said.