FOXBOROUGH — One of the highlights of the Patriots’ preseason came in the first exhibition game against the Eagles, when running back Shane Vereen, lined up wide at the snap with linebacker Mychal Kendricks in coverage, ran a stutter to get separation, and then was in perfect position for a sideline touchdown pass from Tom Brady.
It was another example of what Vereen can do, and gave notice that he is ready to build on his three-touchdown performance against the Texans in last season’s playoffs.
The 24-year-old running back, a second-round pick out of Cal in 2011, looks like he is the Patriots’ next third-down back, taking over the job Kevin Faulk held for so long and Danny Woodhead had briefly before signing with the Chargers in the offseason.
Vereen paid homage to his former teammates in the locker room on Friday, but is not claiming the job.
“I look up to Kevin and I look up to Danny tremendously,” he said. “They helped me get to the point where I am now; without them, it’d be a different story. And I just try to go out and just execute the way the coaches ask me and be able to make plays and be able to be a guy that the offense can trust.”
Vereen and the Patriots’ other returning running backs, Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden, may get to shoulder a bit more of the offensive load over the first weeks of the season, as things shake out with the new-look receiving corps.
Vereen likely will be moving all over the field from snap to snap, from the backfield to the slot to out wide, as he was against Philadelphia, giving him ample opportunity to show that he can be a player his unit can rely upon.
“I love it,” the 5-foot-10-inch, 205-pounder said of playing multiple roles. “I think it makes our offense very fluid, it gives more excitement to my position whenever I can move different places. With that, though, you have to be able to execute, and I think that’s the most important thing.”
But it’s nothing new for him. As a standout at Valencia (Calif.) High School, Vereen had 135 catches in three varsity seasons to go with 488 rushing attempts. At Cal, he was more of a ball carrier (556 rushes for 2,834 yards), but still had his share of receptions (74 for 674 yards).
“It’s something I’ve always worked on,” Vereen said of his receiving ability. “It’s something that’s always been part of the offenses I’ve played in since high school, so I’ve just become comfortable.
“In high school we were a spread, passing offense, so I had to be able to catch the ball. Growing up, I just took pride in being solid in all portions of the game.”
Earlier in the week, coach Bill Belichick told reporters another of the credos he frequently shares with players: “We like to say that dependability is more important than ability.”
For the first season-plus of his NFL career, Vereen was more ability than dependability. He played in just five games as a rookie because of injury; he also missed the first three games of last season as he recovered from a foot injury.
But this year, he hasn’t missed a practice since training camp began.
“It’s a huge relief,” Vereen said of being healthy to start the season for the first time in his career. “Just to be able to make it through everything still in one piece is a blessing, and I feel lucky to be able to go out there and play.”
With his large travel bag by his feet, ready to be loaded with his gear and packed for Buffalo, Vereen excitedly said of the season beginning, “It’s a good time of the year. Great time of the year. Best time of the year. It’s fun, it’s exciting, to see all the work that we’ve put in on Sunday.”
In 13 regular-season games last year, getting reps behind Ridley and Woodhead, Vereen had 62 carries and eight receptions. He nearly equaled that reception total in the two playoffs games, with five against Houston and two more in the AFC Championship game against Baltimore.
Asked if he has goals for the season, Vereen first said as a team, the Patriots just want to get better every week. Pressed about his own goals, he demurred a bit.
“I have a couple personal goals, but they’re personal,” he said, smiling. “They’re written down, and I keep them [on the mirror in his bathroom], constant reminders.”
Time to marry his ability with dependability.