Despite potential, Shepard never shined
“Like I tell everybody: Even with the lack of success I had here throughout the years, or just not living up to certain people’s expectations, I wouldn’t trade this place. There’s nothing like playing here.” RUSSELL SHEPARD, LSU wide receiver/running back
Back in the 1980s, it was Chris Pettaway, a five-star lineman out of Miami who signed with LSU and was affixed with a “can’t-miss” label.
Pettaway stayed at LSU his entire career but ended up lettering just one season, in 1989. Instead of All-America honors and awards, he was labeled a bust for a generation, a poster child for recruiting expectations run wild.
Twenty years later, Russell Shepard signed with LSU as a quarterback out of Cypress Ridge High School in Houston with similar credentials.
Everybody’s prep All-American, a consensus five-star prospect, Shepard could have gone anywhere. In January 2009, about a month before he signed with the Tigers, Shepard played in the Under Armour All-America Game in Orlando, Fla., where he rubbed shoulder pads with future stars such as Matt Barkley, Manti Te’o, Trent Richardson and LSU teammate Sam Montgomery.
The star power didn’t rub off on Shepard. Instead, his star faded, and Shepard was relegated to a backup role he never quite escaped, starting just 14 games in four seasons.
Last Saturday’s game found Shepard working as a backup wide receiver behind sophomore Odell Beckham Jr. and an understudy, change-of-speeds tailback behind freshman Jeremy Hill.
Now a senior, Shepard’s final game in Tiger Stadium looms Saturday against Ole Miss (2:30 p.m., CBS).
And the question remains: At the end of a career of unfulfilled aspirations, did Shepard fail to live up to expectations, or was he set up to fail by a system that set expectations that forever would be beyond his grasp?
“Shepard is a prime example of just how inexact of a science projecting high school prospects can be,” said Tom Luginbill, an ESPN college football and recruiting analyst. “Shepard has been an enigma. He came in as a dual-threat quarterback that really had no chance of remaining under center and was quickly moved to wide receiver, where most, including us, projected he would end up. Any number of reasons could be applied, but I don’t believe he has failed to become a difference maker due to a lack of physical tools.”
Mike Scarborough, publisher of Rivals.com site TigerBait.com, said a number of factors conspired against Shepard’s blocked progression from high school All-American to college star.
“The transition from an undersized quarterback who was primarily a runner to wide receiver was not easy,” Scarborough said. “Having multiple wide receiver coaches (D.J. McCarthy, Billy Gonzales and Adam Henry) didn’t help him, either.
“LSU has had its share of Rivals five-star signees that didn’t live up to the hype. Chris Davenport and Al Woods are recent defensive linemen that didn’t come close to meeting expectations. That’s what makes what we do an inexact science. That said, every major college coach wanted Russell Shepard as a signee. There’s no denying how dynamic a player he was in high school.”
Although featured more as a running back in the Tigers’ 37-17 win over State — Shepard was LSU’s second-leading rusher with eight carries for 33 yards — Shepard’s statistics have remained modest.
He has six receptions this season for 92 yards, his fewest catches since he had five for 34 yards in 2009. That season, he carried the ball 45 times for 294 yards and two touchdowns. This season, he has 19 carries for 161 yards and a score.
Through it all, Shepard has remained upbeat, even able to poke a little fun at himself.
“I always tell people I’m the greatest (LSU) quarterback never to throw a pass,” he said. “You come to a place like this and you’ve got a lot of memories, and it’s kind of sad. But like I tell everybody: Even with the lack of success I had here throughout the years, or just not living up to certain people’s expectations, I wouldn’t trade this place.
“There’s nothing like playing here.”
Since Shepard arrived at LSU in 2009, the attention and coverage devoted to football recruiting has grown. ESPN.com now has “Recruiting Nation” web pages devoted to 14 schools, including LSU. Most of the coverage focuses breathlessly on which prospects are committed, who is visiting where and where they will sign. Rivals, Scout, 24/7 Sports and numerous independent sites cover the same ground.
“It’s scary,” Shepard said. “When I came out, it was pretty big. It gets bigger and bigger every year. I’m one of the guys to feel the negative side of it, trying to live up to the expectations and different variables and not reaching the expectations others put on me.”
Luginbill agreed that increased attention and scrutiny can be a burden to high-profile prospects.
“They are kids, not grown men,” he said. “They have a ton going on in their lives, and some, not all, have the proper support structure to deal with all the attention. It can be daunting and overwhelming.
“The pace of the recruiting process can be directly linked to the role of the Internet and has changed things forever. There’s no going back now.”
There’s no going back for Shepard, either.
Saturday, he will emerge from the tunnel at the north end of Tiger Stadium and run onto the field with his fellow seniors when his name is called, one last moment in the spotlight for a man whom the spotlight shined on brighter than just about anyone four years ago.
As expectations go, Shepard believes he will be received warmly by the crowd. Despite the way his career has gone, he always has been a favorite, an underdog to root for while LSU was crushing most every underdog it faced.
“I’ve been received well by the student body, media, fans,” said Shepard, who will graduate next month with a degree in communications. “I’ve been treated just like Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu here.
“LSU is a special place, and I wouldn’t change it.”
Somewhere, Chris Pettaway must be proud.