Shepard realized future was at WR in first half of Florida game
By GLENN GUILBEAU
Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
BATON ROUGE - Russell Shepard had an epiphany during the first half of the LSU-Florida game last season.
Here it was, the biggest game in Tiger Stadium history, according to rankings, since the Legend of Billy Cannon game on Halloween Night, 1959. And the No. 1 dual-action, high school quarterback in the nation in 2008-09 did not see the field.
And LSU’s offense badly needed something new and different on the field as the No. 1 Gators toyed with the No. 4 Tigers’ attack that would finish No. 112 in the nation out of 120 upper division schools in total offense for a 13-3 victory.
This was Florida quarterback Tim Tebow’s night as he played for the first time after suffering a concussion on a nasty blow against Kentucky. Tebow, the No. 1 dual-action, high school quarterback in the nation in 2005-06, threw for 134 yards and a touchdown and rushed 17 times for 38 yards. That was what Shepard wanted to do. It was why he came to LSU after turning down an offer from Texas to play wide receiver.
Meanwhile, Shepard did nothing. And it was not like he was waiting his turn at Quarterback U., either.
LSU sophomore starter Jordan Jefferson continued to struggle with the option and threw for just 96 yards on 11-of-17 passing against the Gators. He netted -1 yard rushing on seven carries amid five sacks - some his fault and some the fault of an overrated offensive line.
Also ahead of Shepard on the depth chart was troubled sophomore Jarrett Lee, who brought new meaning to the term turnover ratio in 2008 with 16 interceptions, including seven that were returned for touchdowns, and a No. 81 ranking in passing efficiency.
And Shepard could not crack this lineup? If you can’t play on a bad offense that does not have a proven quarterback, when will you play?
“Shoot, it was at halftime,” Shepard said as spring practice opened two weeks ago with him almost exclusively at wide receiver with some time at tailback. “It was at halftime.”
Shepard stayed to himself the Sunday after the Florida game, talked to friends and family and thought about his future. On that Monday, he met with LSU coach Les Miles.
“The Florida game really opened my eyes and made me realize that I probably need to make a switch,” he said. “I realized that Jordan is the quarterback of this team, and we’re only a year apart. So it definitely made me realize. I had time to stay to myself and think. I want to play in that (Florida-LSU) atmosphere. I don’t want to be a five-to-10 player guy. I want to play 60 snaps, and I want to contribute to this team. I talked to coach Miles probably two days later.”
Miles disagreed originally and wanted to give it more time, or maybe another spring. Shepard was more decisive.
“I was like, ‘No, coach, I think I can be better suited for this team at another skill position,’” Shepard said. “It was hard at first with my family because my dad as well as my supporters around the Houston area, they all feel that I could play quarterback and I can be a great college quarterback if I had the chance.”
They still do. Gary Thiebaud, who was Shepard’s coach at Cypress Ridge High in Houston, understands the move, but he does not agree with it.
“Oh yeah, I still think he can play quarterback in college,” Thiebaud said. “He’s a Pat White (West Virginia) or Vince Young (Texas). To me, that’s Russell Shepard.”
Shepard never got the chance even though LSU continued to get average quarterback play for the third straight season in 2009. It’s spring football 2010 now, and Jefferson and Lee still appear to be average at best.
Asked if he felt this was fair, Shepard avoided the question and returned to his epiphany weekend.
“I looked at past players I’ve followed - Brad Smith at Missouri and Reggie McNeil at Texas A&M,” he said.
Both were great dual-action quarterbacks in college, but they are not playing quarterback in the pros very much. Smith is mainly a wide receiver with the New York Jets. McNeil has mainly been a wide receiver in the CFL. Both had to make the big switch. And Tebow will likely have to as well after looking less than average at times at quarterback at the Senior Bowl workouts and at the NFL Combine recently.
So, Shepard thought, why not switch now?
“I looked at the whole aspect that I can have a longer career at the receiver position,” Shepard said. “Smith, McNeil, Tebow, those are all great college quarterbacks. And I still feel I can be a great college quarterback, but I want to develop myself to be the best NFL-type receiver. Receiver is a better fit for me in the NFL. And my dad, his eyes have opened up with the whole Tebow situation and what Tebow’s going through now. Tebow, a couple of months ago, was probably labeled as one of the greatest college players ever. But that has nothing to do with the NFL. Now he has a new position. Dad said, ‘Son, I think you did the best thing for you because college and the NFL are two different things.’”
Since the Florida game, Shepard thinks of himself as a receiver with the opportunity for occasional duty at tailback and Wildcat quarterback.
“He’s all at wide receiver and in his mind,” Miles said. “He’ll get ball handling and running back play as a sidelight to his receivers position. This gets him on the field every down. When you’re at (situational) quarterback, it’s very difficult to be on the field every play. So if he starts with base at wide receiver, then we think that it allows us to play him.”
Shepard caught three passes for 19 yards and rushed five times for 35 yards in a scrimmage Saturday.
“He’s a running back playing receiver,” LSU receiver Chris Tolliver said. “He’s very fast and very shifty. I think he’s going to be very good at receiver.”
Everyone knows Shepard can run. He led LSU with 6.2 yards per carry last season as he gained 277 yards on 45 carries with a 69-yard touchdown from the tailback.
“The biggest thing is just learning the position,” Shepard said. “Receiver’s not as easy as it sounds. You think of receiver, you think of run and catch. But it’s a lot of concepts you have to learn as well as the offense.”
Shepard has hit it off with new receivers coach/passing game coordinator Billy Gonzales, who coached Percy Harvin - a receiver/tailback at Florida who is one Shepard’s idols.
“He’s excited about receiver,” Thiebaud said.
“I feel like I’m already a much better receiver,” Shepard said. “Coach Gonzales said, ‘I see things in you that Percy was able to do, and I feel like you can do it.’ I’ve learned that you have to be consistent to be that next great, go-to guy in his conference. That’s what I want to be.”
Particularly in those games pairing top five teams in Tiger Stadium.
“It was hard not playing in that game,” he said.