Rookie receiver Russell Shepard sees versatility as his ticket

Rookie Russell Shepard said that versatility is "my nickname" and that he likes special teams.
Rookie Russell Shepard said that versatility is "my nickname" and that he likes special teams.
Posted: July 26, 2013

Matt Barkley sees the irony in Russell Shepard's catching his passes at Eagles practices.

In 2009, they were the two top-ranked quarterbacks coming out of high school. Barkley topped the pro-style list, while Shepard headlined the ranks of dual threats.

"It's funny the way things work out sometimes," Barkley said.

Barkley's path to the Eagles after a standout career at Southern Cal could become folklore if he turns into a long-term starter. Shepard's path has been less heralded, which is consistent with his career at Louisiana State.

The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder moved from quarterback during his freshman season and played everywhere from running back to wide receiver to defensive back.

His college career is viewed largely as a disappointment, even though he contributed to teams that won 43 games in four seasons. He could never shake the label of a top recruit who did not live up to his billing.

After going undrafted, Shepard signed with the Eagles as a wide receiver. He wanted to play for Chip Kelly, who aggressively recruited Shepard to play at Oregon. He was also reunited with fellow rookie Barkley, whom he became friendly with during the recruiting process.

"We stayed in touch all the way through college as well," Barkley said.

"You never thought I'd be catching balls from him in the NFL," Shepard said.

Barkley is all but guaranteed a spot on the roster, even if he's not the first-round pick that he was once expected to become. Shepard is fighting for his NFL life with other seemingly anonymous undrafted players.

Shepard is listed as a wide receiver, but his chances of making the team go beyond his position. When Kelly preaches versatility, it helps to have a player such as Shepard - an athlete who played five positions in college, with enough intriguing skills despite no true position.

"In college, it didn't really benefit me," Shepard said. "At this level, I'm able to do a lot for a team. That can keep me around for a long time."

Shepard said that versatility is "my nickname," and that he's particularly taken to special teams. In fact, when Shepard was asked what the best-case scenario for him in the NFL would be, he referred to special teams over any other spot.

"A special-teams ace," Shepard said. "Every phase of it, from returning, to tackling, to blocking punts, to blocking for a punt returner. I can do it all. I see that people make it in this league a long time, never have any stats, but are able to contribute on special teams."

Early in Shepard's college career, he wondered what would have happened had he gone elsewhere - such as Oregon. He eventually accepted the reality of his college career.

"Coming into college with all the things I accomplished in high school . . . it's almost like you think it's guaranteed that you're going to be great," Shepard said. "Going through what I did in college, going from being the No. 1 quarterback in the country to not even throwing a pass in my college career? It was a humbling experience."

He's now seeing the benefit of that experience. Shepard has embraced being a utility player in the NFL. He stayed after practice during minicamps and the first two days of training camp to catch extra passes. He has picked the brain of Jason Avant and Harold Carmichael to try to figure out how to stay in the NFL. And he's enjoying playing in relative obscurity for once.

"Being here and being just another guy? I love it," Shepard said. "That's why I'm catching balls every day. That's why I'm in the playbook. I want to learn to be a pro's pro."

Click here for complete coverage of Eagles training camp.


Contact Zach Berman at zberman@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @ZBerm.

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