He doesn’t know any other way to play, really. Full speed, all the time. Go hard until the whistle blows.
That is, when he can hear the whistle. For much of his football career, however, he hasn’t been able to. Shepard is partially deaf, and until Ole Miss fitted him for athletic hearing aids, simple conversations were difficult enough, let alone football practices and games.
“I was doing it on my own,” Shepard said. “I’ve been kicked out of the game a lot by the delayed hearing and stuff. As a corner, I’m physical, so when I’m coming down and they blow that whistle, I’m going to come knock you out, baby.
“That’s the biggest thing. Now I know when I can (be physical) and when I can’t.”
Shepard is a former five-star prospect. He missed all of last season after tearing a tendon in his toe that required surgery during fall camp. At the time, he was getting second-team reps, though he was pushing eventual All-American Senquez Golson in a close competition. He could have very well ended up being the starter.
These days, he’s full-go, no longer limited physically in any way. The injury is behind him. The hearing aids have helped, too. He can be himself on the football field - a first for the one-time top junior college cornerback in the nation.
“It’s been difficult, but they’ve helped me a lot ever since I’ve been here at Ole Miss,” he said. “I can hear the whistle, and it’s just small things I can pick up because I can hear. Not only can I now listen to the middle linebacker and the safety, but I can get the signal from the coaches from a long ways away.”
“(Shepard’s hearing disability) almost helps him because he’s so detailed and he does exactly what you tell him to do,” Ole Miss cornerbacks coach Jason Jones said. “Of course he makes mistakes from time to time, but because of his hearing he has to focus. He has to have his eyes in the right place and focus on the right things. He doesn’t look at all the extra stuff that some of the other guys look at. That also helps him, and that’s going to be a big upside for him.”
Jones said Shepard is free to wear the hearing aids all the time.
“They’re athletic hearing aids,” Jones said. “The good thing about them is we had the opportunity to go through them this spring and have trial and error and work through some kinks. Since this spring, he hasn’t had any problems.”
Shepard, who recorded four tackles, an interception and a pass breakup in the Grove Bowl in the spring, has arguably the highest upside of any cornerback on the roster. No small compliment, considering he’s flanked in the starting lineup by five-star junior college signee Tony Bridges.
“He has a huge upside,” Jones said of Shepard. “When we got Tee, strength-wise, (Ole Miss strength and conditioning) coach (Paul) Jackson did his evaluation on him and he was really weak - upper body, lower body. He’d never really had to train in the weight room and stuff like that. So he’d been playing just on raw athletic ability. He hurt the toe last year, but being able to spend that full year in the weight room with coach Jackson has changed his game. It’s allowed him to be more physical. He can handle the bigger wideouts and things like that.”
Shepard and Bridges are tasked with replacing last year’s starters Golson and Mike Hilton. Hilton was shifted to free safety to replace four-year starter Cody Prewitt.
Shepard is confident. He has no reason not to be now.
“We don’t feel any type of pressure. We just worry about our responsibilities and make sure we stay disciplined as corners. Just the small things we’re worrying about,” he said. “We’re confident. Being on an island, you have to be real confident. If you’re not confident, there’s the possibility a guy can go over the top and beat you at any time.”
“We’re bigger, longer and more physical at corner,” Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Womack said. “I’m really happy with the guys we have back there. I wouldn't trade them for anybody that I know of. We'll see how they perform.”
Shepard said the team is unified in its goal - a national championship. The Rebels finished 9-4 last season after a 7-0 start, including an appearance in the Chik-fil-A Peach Bowl, a New Year’s Six game.
“We’ve got to handle every game one by one,” he said. “Our goal is a national championship, but we’ve each got to handle our responsibilities and be disciplined. We’ve gotta do the small things on and off the field in order to reach those goals.
“We’ve got a lot of athletes that can do it. Everybody here is capable, and we’ve got the best coaches in the world. Why not?”