Russell Shepard was one of the Carolina Panthers’ less-publicized acquisitions during the team’s frenzied free-agent spending spree in March, but he could turn out to be one of the most important.
Shepard is a special-teams specialist and also will occasionally get on the field as a wide receiver. He will have a chance because although he won’t be among the Panthers’ top three receivers to start training camp, he is learning all three of the wideout positions with the idea he will always be active on game day due to his special-teams duties. So versatility will be key.
“I’m starting off in the slot,” Shepard said. “But one thing I learned in Tampa Bay (with the Bucs, his previous team) is that you should be able to play all positions. I’m kind of a ‘tweener.’ I’m a tall slot receiver (at 6-foot-1), but I’m not the tallest guy on the outside. So being able to play all three positions increases my chances to play.”
Here are a half-dozen other things you may not know about Shepard, who wasn’t drafted out of LSU in 2013 but enters his fifth season in the league after pocketing a $2.1-million guaranteed signing bonus from the Panthers (the rest of his three-year, $10-million deal is not guaranteed).
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THE QUICK GUY: Although he wears No. 19, Ted Ginn’s old number, Shepard doesn’t even pretend to be the Panthers’ speediest receiver like Ginn was. “I’m quicker than I’m fast, although I can run,” Shepard said. “Now Curtis (Samuel, the Panthers’ rookie wideout) – he’s fast.”
So is Samuel the fastest wide receiver on the team? “That would be a comfortable statement,” Shepard said. “Although Austin Duke (the former Charlotte 49er) is fast, too.”
THE ACTOR: Shepard did a little bit of an acting job on that hit from Thomas Davis last year.
During Tampa Bay’s season-ending win over Carolina in Tampa on Jan. 1st, Davis blasted Shepard on a play when Jameis Winston was scrambling. The play was technically legal because of where Winston had gotten to on the field but it looked borderline, and the Bucs crowd was incensed when the replay of Davis laying out Shepard was shown in slow motion.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera called Tampa Bay’s showing of the replay on the stadium big screen a “bush league” move afterward, asking, “What are we trying to incite here?”
What Shepard was trying to incite was a penalty with a little bit of extra flailing around, although he also said the Davis hit was “the hardest I’ve ever been hit as a receiver. Usually, I do the hitting.”
Still, Shepard said: “I was on the opposite side, so I was going to sell it… At the end of the day, it wasn’t a dirty play…. A man of Thomas Davis’s integrity, there is no dirtiness to his game.”
THE RESERVE ROLE: Shepard was a five-star recruit as a star high school quarterback out of Houston, and he went to the big school that offered him what he thought was the best chance to play quarterback (many colleges wanted to turn him into a defensive back or a receiver right away).
LSU gave him that chance at quarterback, but Shepard quickly realized there were a couple of QBs better than he was on campus. So he became a combo running back/wide receiver, with the emphasis on the receiving part his last two seasons.
But he didn’t start many games, in large part because of the players the Tigers had stockpiled.
“There was a whole lot of talent at LSU,” Shepard said. “Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry – those are now two of the best receivers in the NFL. Odell put me on the bench, but at least I can say I was benched by one of the greatest receivers of all time.”
THE COACHING CONNECTION: Shepard’s special teams coach at LSU is now the special teams coordinator with Carolina. Thomas McGaughey was the one who pushed Shepard to take an active role on every one of the special teams that he could while both were at LSU, telling the player the talent would translate well into the NFL.
Recalled Shepard: “T-Mac told me, ‘Shep, you have a chance to play at the next level. Just be aware that special teams is going to be your ticket to make a roster.’”
Shepard now takes pride in parts of the game you probably don’t think about much, like forcing fair catches or throwing a perfect block upfield for a Panthers kick returner.
“I’m an athlete and a football player, and I do whatever it takes,” Shepard said.
THE FAMILY: Shepard married his high-school sweetheart. The two of them have a son who is 13 months old, and the boy has been walking since he was less than eight months old, Shepard said.
THE FAMILY BUSINESS: While Shepard will go on and on about how Thomas Davis’s hit wasn’t dirty, it’s not like Shepard has anything against dirt itself. After his first NFL season in Tampa, Shepard went back to Houston and opened up a business with his father that provides dump trucks for hauling material to construction sites. This led to one of the best introductory press conference quotes I have ever heard from a Panther.
Said Shepard in March: “I take pride in dirt, sand and gravel. Made a lot of money off it.”
Like those materials, Shepard wants to be indispensable – even if he is not noticed that often – for the Panthers.