Justin Forsett gained 1,748 yards and 15 touchdowns at the University of California in 2007. Shane Vereen gained whatever he could from watching.
One was in his senior season, while the other was in his freshman season. Yet while four years and 49 collegiate games separated Forsett and Vereen, the two shared a position and a friendship.
“Me and Justin have been pretty close friends since I got to Cal,” Vereen said in his press conference Thursday. “I learned a lot from him. I mean, that was the first running back I think I looked up to in the college game.”
Five Cal running backs garnered carries on the way to a 7-6 finish that year. Vereen was not one of them. The Valencia High School football player, basketball player and sprinter found himself redshirted behind the likes of Forsett, Will Montgomery and Jahvid Best. He practiced during the week and looked on during Saturdays, but as Forsett found himself drafted in the seventh round by the Seattle Seahawks in April of 2008, Vereen looked for an opening in the backfield.
He found one. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound Vereen stepped in as the team’s primary backup to Best that fall, playing in all 13 games to tally 936 yards and five touchdowns from scrimmage. Yet with four games remaining in his redshirt sophomore season of 2009, he stepped into more. Best sustained a concussion vaulting into the end zone versus Oregon State, and Vereen was thrust into the starting role thenceforth.
Vereen ran with it one year later as Best moved on to the Detroit Lions, collecting 1,116 yards rushing, 209 yards receiving and 16 total touchdowns.
The redshirt junior was selected by the New England Patriots in the second round of the 2011 draft fourth months later. Yet what Vereen gathered from his time at Cal and his one season alongside Forsett has stayed with him for seven years.
“We’ve continued our relationship through there,” Vereen said. “I think the thing that we take out of playing at Cal is just, we were taught well. And we learned from a very young age how to play the game, how to play the game right, and fundamentally how to be sound. I think we’ve just been able to take that to the NFL.”
Vereen and Forsett have taken far different paths since.
The 25-year-old Vereen has played all of his career with one team; the 29-year-old Forsett has been a practice-squad player, a returner, and a member of five different teams. But when the 5-foot-8, 197-pound journeyman became a member of the Baltimore Ravens in the spring of 2014, few could have predicted the story he would go on to pen.
“I’m very happy for him,” Vereen said of his former teammate. “He deserves it. He’s a hard worker, a good runner. And he’s shown it all season long.”
Forsett rushed for 1,266 yards over the course of the season, ranking fifth among NFL backs in yards, as well as first in yards per carry and carries of 20-plus yards. He added eight touchdowns and 44 receptions for 263 yards as the Ravens secured the sixth seed in the AFC in December.
His team will face Vereen’s in the divisional round of the playoffs on Saturday. And when one of them is on the field, the other will be watching closely once again.