Shepard pushing to come back strong in ’12
The eternal optimist within Russell Shepard was no match for the part of himself that was overwhelmed with disappointment following January’s BCS national championship game.
Shepard tweeted that he was on the field for just three plays. He didn’t catch a single pass. Within hours after the game he tweeted out: “Thanks for your support Tiger Nation...but I have to do what’s best for my family and myself...Geaux Tigers.”
Within a few days, days that included heartfelt talks with his family, LSU coaches and fellow players, Shepard came to a realization:
His problems started with himself. From the first three games of last season he was forced to sit out for talking with a teammate about that teammate’s pending interview with an NCAA investigator to the fact he caught only 14 passes for 190 yards, down significantly from his sophomore year, Shepard said it all came to a head after that unhappy night in New Orleans.
“It was frustration,” Shepard said recently. “Me not having the type of season I could have had with the suspension and not preparing like I should have when I was suspended. One thing could have made up for that: winning the national championship. Losing that game made everything just hit me.”
What Shepard said hit him the hardest was the realization he hasn’t been the player he knows he should have been since he came to LSU as the nation’s top-ranked recruit, the prize of 2009 Class.
“I’d be one of the first people to say I definitely underachieved with the talent and potential I have,” he said. “It comes from myself, not quarterback play or coaching. I had to get my life in order. I had to rededicate myself to this game.”
To be honest, it probably isn’t the first time Shepard has talked about reinventing himself as a player. But there does seem to be an earnest tone to his words this time. He knows as he heads into his senior season that his college career is running short.
“This is probably the best summer I’ve had,” Shepard said. “Everyone knows I have the ability to play when I want to. Going into this past spring and summer and (preseason) camp, I have taken a different approach to my preparation. I just said, ‘Russell, you’ve got to go out every day and use every rep to get better and motivate yourself to be the best player you can for this team.”
To Shepard, being the best player he can be means being the best receiver. Too often in the past, he has felt like an athlete without an identity, floating around aimlessly like a small boat in the big pond that is the LSU offense.
“It was a growing experience, growing pains, coming in as hyped as I was not really knowing where your position is on a team like LSU,” Shepard said. “My role on this team is still to do a little of everything, but I’d say the last three years I was just an athlete on the field. I didn’t really work on the craft, mastering this or that. I didn’t put in the extra work. I’m willing to do that this year. I am doing that this year.”
The quintessential “athlete” prospect coming out of Houston Cypress Ridge High, Shepard, who said he has worked hard on his pass-catching technique this summer more than anything, is still the same multiple threat he was in many respects.
Saturday’s scrimmage, LSU’s first of preseason camp, was an example. He caught four passes for 16 yards but also ran the ball a couple of times (Shepard had seven rushes for 52 yards last season, by far the fewest of his career). He is also in line to be one of the team’s top two kickoff returners, along with fellow receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
“He’s catching the ball, and we’re trying to still move him around a bit,” LSU coach Les Miles said after the scrimmage. “Hopefully, he has that kind of year that he wants.”
Shepard said he has a real sense LSU fans are pulling for him to have a “lightbulb” kind of senior campaign.
“People have always been pulling for me,” Shepard said. “This town, this school, these teammates and coaches, they’re a great group of people. Good things happen to good people.”
Shepard’s words sounded like a wish for himself to have his best season ever.