Cal's Shane Vereen ready for his close-up

The Man has been holding California running back Shane Vereen down. And by "The Man," I mean the media.

There's a reason that Vereen is the best running back folks outside the West Coast haven't heard of. There's a reason a back who can go yard or run with power or catch passes doesn't get more publicity.

Folks, these are tough times. Everyone is worried about jobs -- getting one, keeping one. And Vereen, a media studies major, is eyeballing a job at ESPN. After talking to the articulate junior for only a few minutes, there is one obvious reaction for any media member: Yikes.

"I've always wanted to be a sports analyst," he said. "One of my favorite shows is SportsCenter. I like PTI. I grew up watching Stuart Scott. It's been a big dream of mine to be able to argue about sports."

(Note to boss: Vereen wants to be on TV. He has no interest in taking over the Pac-10 blog. So no need to contact him. Really. Please.).

Vereen is presently second in the Pac-10 and 13th in the nation with 115.4 yards per game. He's tied with Oregon's LaMichael James for the Pac-10 lead in touchdowns with 10 (eight rushing, two receiving). He and the Bears visit USC on Saturday in a critical matchup for both teams. The winner figures to set a trajectory into the top-half of the Pac-10. The loser likely takes a turn to the bottom-half.

There is another reason Vereen hasn't been in the spotlight. Before this season, he was only a highly productive backup. While he posted 1,667 rushing yards and scored 16 touchdowns with a 5.1 yards per carry average, he, nonetheless, spent the previous two seasons as the counterpunch for Jahvid Best.

But Vereen has long had a fan club, which has only grown larger this fall. That fan club is comprised of coaches who watch him on tape and play against him on Saturdays.

"Wow, I think he's NFL [quality]," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said. "I don't think there's any question about his ability -- his size, his vision, his speed, his balance. He breaks tackles. He's a complete running back. There's nothing he can't do on the field. He's your prototypical NFL guy with size and speed and vision."

Then there's Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh: "He's a really efficient runner when it comes to him getting all the yards that are blocked for him. And he is explosive enough to get even more yards than what are blocked for. He can take it the distance. He's one of those backs who can make a big run. He's good after contact. He's really explosive -- just a good football player."

With Best injured last year, some Cal and Stanford fans might recall that Vereen piled up 193 yards on 42 carries in a 34-28 upset win in the Big Game.

Said UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, "He's a fabulous back. He's been a fabulous back since he's been in this league. And once again on Saturday he was a great player."

Neuheisel is alluding to the Bears 35-7 win against UCLA in which Vereen rushed for 151 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries and caught three passes for 51 yards.

"He's the next great running back," said USC coach Lane Kiffin, who knows slowing down Vereen is the top priority for his struggling defense.

Vereen admits that redshirting his freshman season was difficult -- he was a touted recruit who wanted to play -- but he said he had no problem being Hutch to Best's Starsky the previous two seasons.

"That didn't bother me," he said. "Jahvid was a great running back and one of my best friends. I was happy for him. He deserved all the accolades he received."

What coaches keep coming back to with Vereen is his versatility. He's got five career rushes over 50 yards, but the 204 pounder also can get tough yards inside and break tackles. He also is an outstanding receiver and can return kicks.

"The thing that stuck out the most about Shane was his versatility," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "He has a great feel for the running game and he's got great speed, but the way he catches the football out of the backfield -- you can put him at receiver. He's got great feel for the passing game."

The general consensus is that Vereen will have to settle for an NFL career for a while before he joins the ESPN family. As for the lack of publicity -- at least to this point -- Vereen doesn't seem terribly worked up.

"I don't pay too much attention to it," he said. "I try to just focus on the simple things -- on what's important this week, in this day. I have enough trouble remembering my class schedule, let alone worrying about national attention and all that kind of stuff. I assume that when the time is right it will come."

Vereen, as a student of the sports media, also is painfully aware of the perception of Cal. The Bears boast great talent and can look unbeatable at times. Then, just when they get acclaim, they flop. Last year, the Bears were ranked No. 6 before they took consecutive whippings from Oregon and USC by a combined count of 72-6.

"We understand that in the past couple of years, we have had some letdowns," he said. "Because of that, I think we're conscious of what needs to be done. I think we feel like we have a lot to prove."

Any type of revenge against Oregon will have to wait until the Ducks visit on Nov. 13 in what might be a game with national title implications.

But Vereen and the Bears get the Trojans on Saturday, a team Cal hasn't beaten since 2003. If Vereen puts up big numbers in a Cal win, it's not likely The Man will be able to keep a lid on his talents much longer.