The familiar smile gave it away right off the bat.
Russell Shepard was back in a comfort zone Monday, sitting down with the media around him. Them asking questions, him answering.
But there was obviously plenty of contrition and humility as well, the lingering after-effect of Shepard’s stint in NCAA-imposed football purgatory that ended Saturday when he played for the first time this fall in the LSU’s 47-21 victory against West Virginia.
There was one spectacular 16-yard catch that netted a first down, two more near catches and a couple of other throws in his direction.
All of that was gravy to Shepard, though.
Just being back in a uniform, running and jumping and blocking … doing whatever his team needed him to do – that was the triumph the affable junior craved.
“It was just stress relief,” Shepard said quietly. He’d later point out himself how different he sounds because of the major dose of humility he’s had to choke down after the NCAA suspended him for three games for the ambiguity of violating college sports’ protocol.
“I’ve been through a lot – football problems personal problems. To get out and just let everything go and play with my teammates was amazing.”
Shepard’s transgressions are apparently tied to an on-campus interview he did with an NCAA investigator who was at LSU in relation to controversial alleged street agent Will Lyles.
There were no rules violated in connection to Lyles, and Shepard’s dustup with compliance over an off-campus housing situation were also not at the root of his banishment.
Instead, Shepard divulged information to a teammate about his interview with the NCAA – some reports indicate it was Craig Loston, who is also Shepard’s cousin – after the NCAA had explicitly instructed him not to talk about it at all.
Shepard at first faced a season-long suspension when the NCAA first discovered his misstep. He said he got a chance to plead for leniency, which got the suspension reduced from six games and then to three.
“It could’ve been more,” Shepard said. “At a certain point I didn’t know if I was going to play football the whole year. It’s a blessing that I’m back now. I’m happy with everything I’m getting to this point. I’ve just got to learn from my mistakes and move on. I’m glad to be back.
“It’s been a journey and definitely has been a humbling experience, but at the same time it’s going to make me a better man, a better football player, a better father down the road, just a better person. I’m happy every day I went through this to make me a better person.”
Now, with one game of playing through some rust, the attention can shift to whether or not Shepard has developed into a better player.
Throughout the offseason, LSU coach Les Miles spoke glowingly about the former five-star recruit who has never quite turned the corner on all that potential he arrived with.
Before the turmoil of the offseason stirred up, Shepard was poised to be a productive veteran receiver who could lead the Tigers’ youthful receiving corps along with Rueben Randle.
Miles and Shepard’s teammates talked about the 6-foot-1, 185-pound receiver running crisper, more precise routes, being more focused and dedicated in offseason work and embracing his emerging role as a go-to receiver.
Quarterback Jarrett Lee targeted Shepard on LSU’s fourth snap of the game at West Virginia and later rifled two deep passes to him that didn’t result in catches despite hitting him in the hands.
“They’re always catchable any time it doesn’t hit the ground and if it hits my hands at any time,” Shepard said.
“Me and Jarrett have to get some rhythm things but that comes with just playing the game. It comes with me and Jarrett getting together and connecting. We’re going to get that going.”
Lee made it clear he’s not going to steer away from Shepard.
After the Tigers’ triumph ay Milan Puskar Stadium in which Lee matched a career-high with three touchdowns, he said he wasn’t discouraged about the missed chances with Shepard.
“Russell will get back into it because he’s a great athlete who is going to make a lot of plays,” Lee said. “We’re going to keep coming to him with the ball. He’s a special athlete and he’s going to learn from (Saturday) and he ready next week.”
Added Miles, “There’s some things in there (for Shepard) that we didn’t quite get to. I think we can use him better.”
That the Tigers can incorporate Shepard into the offense at all is a shot in the arm, especially considering how well freshman Odell Beckham Jr. has performed opposite Rueben Randle.
Beckham is second to Randle with 17 receptions and is coming off a night when he snared a pair of throws for 82 yards, including a 52-yard dagger for his first career touchdown.
There’s not a hint of resentment from Shepard toward Beckham nor the other up-and-coming receivers who filled the void while he was on the shelf.
Shepard proudly reported he was the first player to run down and celebrate with Beckham after his TD and gushed about the LSU receiving corps having the most depth it has had since 2007. He also said he’s eager to get up to speed so he can play the same level as his younger teammates.
Asked what he enjoyed watching in his hiatus, Shepard said “Seeing what the receivers brought to the table, their intensity, them making plays. People like Odell Beckham making a plays like a true freshman.
“That’s what they’re supposed to do. We recruit the best in the country.”
That trend began long before Shepard, but he was regarded as one of the crown jewels of a 2009 recruiting class that is at the heart of this year’s team, which climbed to No. 1 in the AP poll released Sunday.
And now Shepard is back where he belongs. On the field and making an impact.