It may take Russell Shepard a while before quarterback is completely out of his system.
“You’re giving up something you’ve always done, so that’s hard,” he said.
Not as hard, though, as being a glorified gimmick, which Shepard was for much of his freshman season at LSU.
He came to Baton Rouge as the No. 1-rated multi-purpose quarterback prospect in the country, one of those rare athletes that doesn’t come along very often, but never found his niche last season in an LSU offense that never found its identity.
Shepard practiced with the quarterbacks and dabbled with the receivers. He never settled into a comfort zone at either position, and the end result was that the Tigers got very little production out of perhaps the most dynamic playmaker on their roster.
That won’t be a problem in 2010.
Shepard is working exclusively with the receivers now and considers himself a receiver. He’ll also get a little work at running back and will get a shot at returning kickoffs and punts, too.
He’s playing the ‘Z’ receiver position, which is where Brandon LaFell and Early Doucet lined up in the LSU offense. The Tigers have typically moved the ‘Z’ receiver around to create favorable matchups.
“It’s a big chance at such a young age, but I’m going to do a lot of things at that position, and I’m going to get in the backfield some and do a lot of things, sweeps, catching the ball out of the backfield, some of the things they may not ask Stevan Ridley or Richard Murphy to do,” Shepard said. “I’ll be on special teams, too, on punt return and kick return.
“They’re going to give me the ball as much as possible next year.”
Over and above his vast talent, one of the most refreshing things about Shepard is his attitude.
Sure, he was a five-star prospect coming out of high school, but he didn't fall prey to that five-star, I'm-entitled mentality.
Even when he wasn’t getting the ball last season and sort of faded into obscurity in LSU’s stagnant offense, he never complained. He never pouted, and he never quit believing that he could help the team.
“I think last year helped me, because it humbled me and taught me patience,” said Shepard, who didn’t have an offensive touch in the 19-17 Capital One Bowl loss to Penn State. “That’s the way it is when you have All-Americans in front of you.
“But, honestly, it made me such a better player. Sitting on that sideline really hurt, but I know now what it takes to be an impact player in this league. That’s what is most important for me, being a big contributor to this LSU football team.”
Sensing that his quarterback days were probably numbered, Shepard went to LSU coach Les Miles two days after the Florida loss last season, a game in which the home Tigers were held to a single field goal and only 162 yards of total offense.
In short, Shepard told Miles that he was ready to make a position change and was willing to give up quarterback for good.
“It was the best thing for me and the best thing for this team,” Shepard said. “I knew coming into this spring that it was going to be different, and it has been.”
The 6-1, 188-pound Shepard has immersed himself into being a receiver at this level, which means gleaning anything he can from the likes of LaFell and Doucet and soaking up the nuances of playing the position.
“The biggest adjustment is just learning the process,” Shepard said. “When you’re on that island one-on-one with a Patrick Peterson or a Janoris Jenkins, that’s a whole different deal. It’s not like the quarterback position where you’re going on instinct a lot of the time. You have to know where you’ve got to be. You have to know your reads, your hot reads, and you have to be on the same page as the quarterback.
“Running around and catching balls has been the easiest thing for me, because I am a natural athlete. But learning all the little things that it takes to be a great receiver will take some time.”
That may be, but Miles has seen enough of Shepard to know that he’s a natural wherever he is with the ball in hands.
“Who knows where he’ll take a lot of the snaps from?” Miles said. “But I can tell you that the opportunity to give him the ball will be easier (at receiver).”