JaCorey Shepherd has become one of the bright spots of KU's new-look defense and emerging as one of the best cornerbacks in the Big 12.
Shepherd, a junior who converted from wide receiver to cornerback last season, is playing with great confidence at his new position and ranks second in the Big 12 and sixth nationally with 1.67 passes defended per game. He has eight pass breakups and picked off two passes the last two games against Oklahoma and TCU. Shepherd also ranks fifth on the team with 30 tackles.
His secret for success?
"Hard work," Shepherd replied without hesitation. "I put in a lot of time on my own after meetings and after practice. I get a lot of extra film in so I can prepare myself for the opponent I'm going against or the person I'm going to be holding."
Shepherd's play has drawn rave reviews from his coaches and teammates. Just ask fellow junior cornerback Dexter McDonald.
"I think it's been amazing to watch JaCorey develop," McDonald said. "His play has been tremendous. I think he continues to improve every week. I feel he was a great wide receiver, but he's transitioned himself into a great corner now, and I feel like he's earning respect from the teams over the Big 12 as well as the country."
Shepherd and the KU secondary are vastly improved this season. The Jayhawks are allowing just 215.2 passing yards per game, compared to a program-worst 289.2 yards per contest last year. That margin (-74.0) currently ranks as the second-best, single-season turnaround for the KU defense in school history.
Shepherd said the secondary has great cohesion, despite four new full-time starters.
"It all started from this summer," he said. "Once we all got in together, we tried to bond. One thing we worked on a lot was communication so we tried to communicate a lot when we're on the field and then when we're not on the field, (we're) watching film and helping each other out."
KU's secondary will have to help each other out on Saturday at Memorial Stadium against No. 5 Baylor (6-0) in what will be the Jayhawks' biggest test to date this season. BU has a high-powered offense led by quarterback Bryce Petty (he has completed 70.8 percent of his passes with 15 TDs and just one interception), receivers Antwan Goodley (he ranks third nationally with 141.8 receiving yards per game) and Tevin Reese (he ranks eighth in FBS with 119.0 receiving yards per game), and running backs Lache Seastrunk (he is ninth nationally with 126.7 rushing yards per game, and ranks third in the country with 9.2 yards per carry), Shock Linwood and Glasco Martin.
The Bears, who have won 10 straight dating back to last season, lead the country in total and scoring offense, averaging 714.3 yards and 64.7 points per game. Baylor is also third in the country in passing offense, averaging 414.0 yards per game, while seventh in the land in rushing offense, averaging 300.3 yards per contest.
Wait, there's more.
Baylor ranks No. 1 nationally with 9.06 average yards per play, while also leading the FBS averaging 19.41 yards per completion. The Bears, meanwhile, lead the country in team passing efficiency with a 213.22 rating.
Shepherd obviously knows KU has its hands full.
"They're a pretty balanced team," Shepherd said. "They like to pass, but they're also a good running team. They really have no weakness so we have to try and stop both the pass and run. It's a huge test, but I feel like we're going to be ready as far as the defensive side of the ball. We're taking it like any other week, doing the stuff we do and preparing for them."
Shepherd, though, knows Baylor's offense is a different animal with some mind-boggling numbers.
"They just attack," he said. "They attack where they can and what's working and keep doing it until you stop it. I think a lot (of their success) is how fast they go. They do have talent as well. Just the combination makes it pretty hard to stop an offense like that."
But the Jayhawks are up for the challenge.
"I think it will be trying to slow down the entire offense as a whole because they're explosive," Shepherd said. "Everyone doing their job and being where they're supposed to be and covering the man they're supposed to cover. Everyone running to the ball and actual gang tackle, and not assuming one person is going to (make) the tackle.
"We just got to continue to play consistently," Shepherd added. "If we do have a bad play or if there is a big play, we can't get down, we got to keep going forward and build from it."
Shepherd has certainly moved forward this season while making big plays in the secondary. He's found a home at cornerback after playing receiver most of his life. While he admits it's "crossed my mind" about playing both positions, Shepherd is just currently trying to become the best cornerback possible and help the team on defense.
"Now, I like corner (over receiver)," he said. "I like being out on the island. It's just one-on-one with your man. Either you're going to win or he's going to win. I like that aspect of the game."
While KU (2-4) is a huge underdog against BU, Shepherd believes KU can knock off the mighty Bears and shock the nation.
"Why not? It's just another game," Shepherd said. "Anybody can be upset any week, so why not it be us this week."