FOXBOROUGH — When he was at the University of California, Shane Vereen kept pace with some pretty fast company.
His name was linked with fellow running backs Marshawn Lynch and Jahvid Best, all three tied for third on Cal’s all-time touchdown list with 29.
Then there was Deltha O’Neal (4,998), Russell White (4,943), Lynch (4,574), and Chuck Muncie (4,194), all of whom ranked ahead of Vereen (4,069) among the school’s career leaders in all-purpose yards.
After getting drafted by the Patriots in the second round (56th overall) in 2011, Vereen found himself associated with an entirely different group of players: the inactives.
Vereen was with Ron Brace, Kevin Faulk, Gary Guyton, Ryan Mallett, Nick McDonald, Chad Ochocinco, Stevan Ridley, and Donald Thomas, all listed as inactive for last year’s AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium.
“Last year, it was kind of devastating and heartbreaking not to be out there with the team in a big game’’ said Vereen, a rookie designated inactive for nine regular-season games, including the last five in a row, and all three postseason contests.
In last Sunday’s 41-28 divisional round victory over the Houston Texans, the 5-foot-9-inch (he claims to be 5-10), 205-pound Vereen went from an inactive to very active participant in the first playoff appearance of his career.
Vereen seized upon an opportunity when he was summoned to replace Danny Woodhead, who injured his left thumb on the Patriots’ first play from scrimmage.
“Something that could happen during the game could thrust somebody else right into the spotlight, so to speak,’’ said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who constantly drills his players about the team’s next man up philosophy. “We all have to be ready for any of those situations, including guys on the practice squad, which we’ve all seen during the course of the year.
“You never know what players could have to come in and be called on and have to contribute.’’
Vereen submitted a breakout performance with 124 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns that helped the Patriots earn their seventh appearance in the AFC Championship game under Belichick.
“They call it a hat trick,’’ Faulk said of Vereen’s scoring performance. “I don’t know much about hockey, but I know it’s back.’’
And so, too, was Vereen, having resurrected himself from a purgatory of inactivity.
That his performance resulted in a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship against the Ravens made it even sweeter for Vereen, who had 83 receiving and 41 rushing yards. He scored on a 1-yard run and catches of 8 and 33 yards, the latter of which gave the Patriots a 38-13 fourth-quarter lead.
“We’ve had quite a few moving parts at all those offensive positions this year,’’ said quarterback Tom Brady. “But, obviously, with what Shane did the other night, it’s a huge reason why we’re playing in this game.’’
Apprised of Brady’s high praise, Vereen bowed his head. “It’s humbling,’’ he said, softly. “It’s humbling, but it’s also motivation that I’ve got to go out and get better so we can actually have a better performance this Sunday.’’
Vereen is now rubbing shoulders with former 49ers Roger Craig and Ricky Watters as the only players in NFL history with a pair of TD receptions and a TD run in a postseason game. Craig and Watters did it in the Super Bowl.
“I saw a great day,’’ marveled Ridley, who rushed for a team-high 82 yards and had an 8-yard TD on 15 carries.
“I saw one of the best days out of a football player and he just happens to be my teammate, my next-door neighbor [in the locker room], and my draft-class classmate, I guess you would call it,’’ said Ridley. “I’m happy for him and our room is happy for him, because like we say, ‘It’s the next man up,’ and we’re not overlooking anybody.’’
Veteran wide receiver Deion Branch said Friday, “It may sound crazy, but I wasn’t impressed, because I see this . . . ’’
Eyebrows were raised. Not impressed?
Branch stopped himself. Sensing his remarks might be misconstrued, he clarified.
“I’m just saying, in general with this guy, we see this every day on the practice field,’’ Branch said. “It’s just all about the opportunities that guys get. Not only him, but Ridley, and [Brandon] Bolden.
“Given the opportunity, we know that these guys can do it and the coach trusts that they can do it. That’s why he puts them on the field.’’
While he languished on the inactive list his rookie season, Vereen experienced creeping doubt over whether he would ever get called upon.
He wound up the 2011 season rushing for 57 yards and 1 TD on 15 carries in back-to-back games vs. Kansas City and at Philadelphia, but was shelved by a nagging hamstring injury for the remaining five games of the regular season.
His lackluster production was a far cry from the 1,167 yards and 13 TDs he scored on 231 carries in 12 starts his last season at Cal.
“Shane, you could tell he was going to be a very smart and intelligent guy, but it might have taken him a little while longer because he really wanted to focus on what he had to do,’’ Faulk said. “Early on, he got caught up in a couple of injuries and it kind of discouraged him.
“As a competitor, you get very discouraged real easily when you’re not involved in the play. You can see it in him.
“And to actually see it happen last week, that’s why I was so excited.’’
Of the three touchdowns he scored, which one was he particularly proud of?
“Well, on the last one, Tom threw a perfect, perfect pass,’’ said Vereen, referring to the 33-yard TD catch he made streaking past the man-to-man coverage of Texans linebacker Barrett Ruud.
“It was a matchup we were hoping to get,’’ Vereen said, “and we were able to execute the play.’’
No doubt Vereen would love nothing more than to execute a similar play against the Ravens. It is, after all, a game in which he’d much prefer an active role.
“Last year, I wasn’t able to play in the game,’’ Vereen said. “This year, I’ll probably have a little bigger role. But you understand the seriousness of the game and you understand that they’re the other best team in the AFC and that it’s going to be a battle and you’ve got to come prepared.
“This year, I’m able to contribute and I hope to help the team in the best way I can.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.