On Friday nights in high school, a win for the Cypress Ridge Rams usually meant that Russell Shepard had a big night. Often, a loss meant the same thing.
Understandably, the transition to college has been tough for the 6-foot-2, 185-pound quarterback.
Ranked as the No. 2 quarterback in the country coming out of Houston, Shepard decided to stick with the position in the spring and through the preseason.
When the season-opener against Washington rolled in, Shepard was nowhere to be found.
Head coach Les Miles said after the game that he wished Shepard had been worked in, so fans turned their focus to week two. Back home against Vanderbilt, certainly Shepard would be given touches.
They came, but the result was not what anyone had wished for. On his first career touch, Shepard took the snap and was turned head over heels on a tackle by a Commodore defender.
On the next play, Shepard lined up at receiver. He ran a slant, caught the pass and coughed it up. Two plays into his time at LSU; Shepard had already turned the ball over.
The following week against ULL, the Houston native recorded four touches for 21 yards.
By week four, the Tigers were on the road to Starkville ready to kick off conference play against the Bulldogs. In the first half of a rain-drenched afternoon, Shepard carried the ball six times for 32 yards. As a result of the tight game, Miles and offensive coordinator Gary Crowton kept Shepard sidelined the entire second half. Regardless, he still led all LSU rushers.
On the road once more, Shepard saw a season-high six touches for 32 yards against Georgia, seeing action from start to finish in a game that went down to the wire.
Despite some shaky game management, it appeared that Shepard had finally swayed the Tiger staff into his corner.
When he never saw the field against No. 1 Florida the following week, the jury was out once again. When would Shepard make a mark that warranted keeping him involved in the weekly game plan?
The answer came in week eight, in Death Valley, against Auburn.
After five touches for just two yards, Shepard took a handoff out of the shotgun and split the left tackle and guard. 69 yards later, he was in the end zone for his first collegiate touchdown.
“I just thought, this can’t be true,” he said. “I told myself don’t get it stripped, don’t get caught, and get to the end zone.
“When I got there, I just wanted to get on my knees and sleep. I went from having 160 touchdowns in high school to struggling to get touches, so it was an amazing feeling. For a long time I have been down on myself. I am my biggest critic, and I want to help LSU be the best team that they can be. I hope that was one of many.”
Thanks to the run, Shepard led all rushers on six carries for 71 yards. The production also marked the second time, in only five games played, that the freshman has finished as the leading Tiger rusher.
“My touches will come on how productive I am,” he said.
“The recruitment and hype is over, and now I have to produce. The more I produce, the more touches I am going to get.”
So far, the majority of his touches have come at quarterback in the wildcat or as a running back in the shotgun. He has still not thrown a pass.
“I am learning quarterback, running back, receiver and soon I have to learn some special teams,” Shepard said. “With learning four different things, the staff has done a great job mentoring me.”
According to Miles, the development of his five-star quarterback prospect is no different than the next highly touted 18-year olds.
“It is a very difficult one for anyone,” Miles said. “When you are in high school, and you are the player at that school, the coach coaches you, and the other guys get the info as you get it. You come to college, and you realize there are a number of guys who get their opportunity, and just to coach you would be inappropriate. We coach the room, and it is the room’s obligation to catch up.
“We have asked him to do a lot of things. We multiply his issues with how much we are trying to put on his plate. But going forward, he will have the opportunity to catch it, throw it and run it.”
That sounds good with Shepard, who said that he is slowly realizing the benefits of being brought along at a comfortable pace.
“I am good friends with Matt Barkley and Trent Richardson, and they said it is something serious,” Shepard said. “The things Matt tells me, thank God coach [Gary] Crowton and Miles are bringing me along slowly, because he was thrown in the fire at a very young age.”
With five regular season games left, Shepard said that the backstretch would be the time for him to continue the momentum gained from Auburn.
Yet, dressed in receiver’s gloves against the Plainsmen, should fans expect Shepard to ever put the ball in the air? According to No. 10, anything is possible.
“I could have gloves on one night or I can just not play another night. You never know with me,” he smiled.