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With one call from his college quarterback, Sterling Shepard’s a Buc

TAMPA — He had to memorize only one route. Not from another NFL playbook, but to his kids’ school.

Then came a phone call from his former college quarterback, and Sterling Shepard’s life took a detour.

He believed this late into the offseason, only a few weeks from the start of training camp, his football playing days might be over at age 31.

A torn Achilles ended his season two weeks early in 2021. A torn anterior cruciate ligament forced him to miss all but three games in 2022.

Last season, Shepard appeared in 15 games, catching only 10 passes for 57 yards.

“Oh, yeah, I was in straight daddy mode,” Shepard said Tuesday on the first day of Bucs minicamp. “I was taking my kids to school every morning, which was great. Spending time with them and then trying to figure out next steps. But I did keep my body in shape just in case something like this happened and it was good that I did that. I was running, I wasn’t running routes, but I was still sprinting, doing stuff like that, just in case something happened.”

Shepard was working out one day last week, pressing 415 pounds during a leg lift, when he saw his phone light up with a text message from Baker Mayfield, his former Oklahoma teammate.

“He was asking me how I was feeling? I said, ‘Man, I feel really good. My body feels good,’ ” Shepard said. “He was like, ‘See if your agent will give (the Bucs) a call and see what they will say.’ Sure enough, my agent called them. About five minutes later, they were like, ‘Will you fly in tomorrow for a workout?’ I was like, ‘Ugh, I haven’t been running any routes but yeah, I’ll go out there.’ So I got out there and when I strapped on the cleats, it all turned on for me and I’m just blessed to be here and blessed for the opportunity.”

On Tuesday, one day after signing a one-year deal with the Bucs, Shepard walked onto a football field for the first time in his pro career not wearing a Giants uniform and ran routes with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.

“It was hot. It was really hot,” Shepard said. “But it was good. I’m just trying to get a grasp of the offense. Trying to get out there and help the team in any way I can, but it was a good first day. My head was spinning a little bit with all the new plays. It’s a lot different than a lot of the offenses I’ve been in.”

Fortunately, after a three-day crash course during mandatory minicamp, Shepard will have time to prepare for training camp in late July. He is here to provide some experienced depth behind Evans and Godwin.

While the Bucs’ two starting receivers have combined for 17 NFL seasons, what’s behind them are relative newbies such as rookie Jalen McMillan and second-year pros Trey Palmer and Rakim Jarrett. For Shepard, it’s a role similar to the one that was expected to be provided by Russell Gage last year before he sustained a season-ending knee injury in the Bucs’ joint workout with the Jets in the preseason.

“I’m super excited. I mean, those two have played a lot of ball and are really great at their craft,” Shepard said of Evans and Godwin. “I look forward to learning from them, too. I learn from everybody. It doesn’t matter. The younger guys, too. I can pick up something from them. I’m excited to be in this receiver room and help out any way I can. ...

“My head is tilted up right now. I’m trying to figure out this offense, trying to get to know these guys, so I haven’t even thought that far ahead.”

What Shepard is sure of is that he’s happy to be reunited with Mayfield. He played only one season with him at Oklahoma, catching 86 passes to help lead the Sooners to a Big 12 title.

Since then, Shepard said he has followed Mayfield’s career closely and was glad the quarterback’s been able to re-establish his career in Tampa Bay, signing a three-year, $100 million contract. Meanwhile, Shepard caught 372 passes for 4,095 yards and 23 touchdowns with the Giants.

“It’s super fun. I loved playing with him in college,” Shepard said of Mayfield. “He’s a guy who has super energy that you can feed off of. He wants to win games and he’s the ultimate competitor and he always plays with that chip on his shoulder. That’s one thing I’ve always noticed about Baker. No matter what you say about him, he’s going to keep on pushing it.

“I’m just blessed to be here and blessed to be back with my boy.”

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