Assessing 2011's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: LSU junior wide receiver Russell Shepard.
• Typecasting. Shepard arrived in Baton Rouge in 2009 with a reputation as a guy who could do just about anything with the ball in his hands, and LSU has committed to giving him the opportunity. Through his first two years, Shepard has lined up as a quarterback, running back and receiver, taken direct snaps, and handoffs, caught a few dozen passes and flashed glimpses of the expected big-play potential in every format. Now, the big question going into Year Three: How can coaches get him to do that, like, all the time?
That's a puzzle outgoing offensive coordinator Gary Crowton never quite solved, though not for lack of trying. To the same end, Shepard spent last spring trying to move out of a vagabond existence as a true freshman and into a permanent home at wide receiver. The fruits of that move: Another vagabond existence as a sophomore, A dozen first downs, one touchdown and more cameos as a shotgun tailback and "Wildcat" quarterback in between a whole lot of ineffective screen passes.
New offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe hit the "reset" button this spring, when Shepard found himself once again committing to wide receiver in hopes of providing a long-awaited jolt to the conference's most anemic passing game. If he sticks as a consistent, reliable target for beleaguered senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson, the offense may finally find the big-play spark the preseason believers seem to be taking for granted when they push the Tigers as a serious national contender. If not, the projections of grandeur are still a very long leap.
• Best-Case. Make no mistake: No one has ever second-guessed the immense talent that once had Shepard sitting near the top of every recruiting list. As a freshman, he flashed home-run potential on a simple shotgun sweep against Auburn at midseason, when he found a crack for a 65-yard sprint to paydirt; last year, he kicked off his sophomore campaign by taking an identical play 50 yards for a score in the season-opening win over North Carolina.
Shepard also caught his first career touchdown pass against the Tar Heels later in the first half, and kept the streak alive a week later with a 30-yard touchdown run for the first score of an eventual 27-3 rout at Vanderbilt. His 41-yard run against Alabama was the second-longest of the season against the Tide and set up a critical fourth quarter field goal that fueled LSU's comeback win. For the year, the balance was uncanny: 32 carries for 226 yards rushing, 33 catches for 254 yards receiving.
|More Coming Attractions|
|• VONTAZE BURFICT, Arizona State|
|• MICHAEL DYER, Auburn|
|• KEENAN ALLEN, Cal|
|• DeANDRE HOPKINS, Clemson|
|• GREG REID, Florida State|
|• MARCUS COKER, Iowa|
|• BRYCE BROWN, Kansas State|
|• TYRANN MATHIEU, LSU|
|• ETIENNE SABINO, Ohio State|
|• JAMARKUS McFARLAND, Oklahoma|
|• DEVIN TAYLOR, South Carolina|
|• DARRELL SCOTT, South Florida|
|• SHAYNE SKOV, Stanford|
|• NICK PERRY, USC|
|• BRUCE IRVIN, West Virginia|
|Listed alphabetically by school.|
In that sense — as a versatile option who forces defense to account for him as a threat to run, catch and potentially throw regardless of where he lines up — Shepard is reminiscent of Percy Harvin, who pioneered the "omniback" role to spectacular effect at Florida. Shepard can't begin to touch that kind of production yet — his best game, the 79-yard, two-touchdown "breakthrough" against North Carolina, would have been just another day at the park for Harvin — but he has flashed the ability and should be looking at an expanded role as an upperclassman in a completely overhauled scheme.
• Worst-Case. As suggested, the most glaring difference between a Harvin, Jeremy Maclin or James Rodgers and Russell Shepard to date is opportunity. Harvin and Macklin both touched the ball at least a dozen times per game in one fashion or another; last your, Shepard averaged less than half that for an offense in desperate need of playmakers anywhere it could find them.
More importantly, he didn't exactly command more attention when he did get the chance. Outside of the isolated long runs against Carolina, Vandy and 'Bama, only three of Shepard's other 29 carries went for first downs, and as a receiver, there were no big plays to speak of: He averaged a meager 7.7 yards per catch with a long gain of 22 yards and zero touchdowns after the opening day score against UNC. He was there — he caught at least one pass in every game of the regular season, but he rarely made his presence felt. And when the offense finally delivered something resembling a breakthrough in a 41-24 Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M, Shepard's line for the night was one carry for four yards.
• Fun fact. Shepard is known as one of the more charitable Tigers, thanks to his work in the Louisiana prison system, a local Boys and Girls club and an organization dedicated to fighting childhood obesity in his hometown, Houston. And if there's a distressed coed in need of a local athlete, well, he's there for them, too:
Based on the standing opinion of Jordan Jefferson among LSU fans, the second girl may have some walk-on potential.
• What to expect in the fall. As a junior, this may be Shepard's last chance to ward off the dreaded "bust" tag, but with his slot-ready size (6-foot-1, 188 pounds, officially) and fellow junior Reuben Randle likely to emerge as Jefferson's No. 1 target, his contributions are more likely to come in the form of a Big Play of the Week or the occasional clutch first down than in big, consistent numbers on the stat sheet. Ultimately, his success will be judged largely the team's success. LSU's offense isn't geared toward a prolific passing game, anyway, but if Shepard adds enough firepower to help it fulfill the outsized preseason hype, he'll go down as a campus hero, anyway.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.