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Not the ‘prototype,’ but Shepherd’s a ‘football player’

His quarterback in college, Chargers rookie Easton Stick, agrees with Packers GM Brian Gutekunst. "He's a football player," both said before Shepherd surprisingly made the roster on Saturday.
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Note: This story was originally published on Aug. 14.

Darrius Shepherd’s story isn’t so much about an underdog as it is about the blind spots that can occur in scouting.

Shepherd was an FCS All-American following a standout senior season at North Dakota State. Shepherd is neither fast (4.61 in the 40) nor tall (5-foot-10 1/2), and the small-school schedule was another knock on his resume. Not only did he go undrafted, but he went unsigned. His NFL opportunity came as a tryout player at the Green Bay Packers’ rookie minicamp.

Essentially, his professional football future boiled down to two days.

No pressure, right?

“Going into that tryout, I just wanted to make a first impression and be consistent and show my skill-set, and hope for the best,” Shepherd said. “I was lucky enough to get signed here and am thankful for the opportunity.”

Shepherd made his own luck. He was the only player to earn a contract from those practices.

Fast forward three-plus months, and Shepherd has put himself squarely in the mix to earn a roster spot heading into Thursday night’s preseason game at the Baltimore Ravens. Other than Davante Adams and Jake Kumerow, none of the Packers’ receivers have made more plays on the practice field than Shepherd.

What did everyone miss?

“It’s tough to say,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said on Tuesday when asked what scouts – including his own – missed in the predraft process. “He had a pretty productive year at a pretty good program but a smaller program. Obviously, he’s not the biggest player out there. His measurements are typically not what you’re looking for – didn’t run particularly fast at his pro day – but he’s a football player. He has that instinctual ability to find spots, get open and catch the ball. He’s had a really good start. He’s really been a nice surprise for us so far. A long way to go but he’s earned more opportunities.”

His quarterback at North Dakota State, Los Angeles Chargers rookie fifth-round pick Easton Stick, wasn’t surprised when told about Shepherd’s success. Stick used the same “football player” term during a phone interview following Wednesday’s practice.

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“Sure, maybe he doesn’t fit the prototype measurements and all that stuff but he’s a football player,” Stick said. “He’s one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever been around and a genuine person. He’s a football player, at the end of the day. So, I’m not surprised at all that he’s having a lot of success.”

Shepherd made one of the big plays of Thursday’s preseason victory over Houston with his leaping touchdown catch from DeShone Kizer, with Shepherd holding onto the ball despite taking a big shot from a defender. A couple days later, he blew past defensive back Natrell Jamerson – who ran a 4.40 40 at the 2018 Scouting Combine – for a long touchdown. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers sprinted downfield to celebrate that play. Earlier in camp, he soundly beat top cornerback Jaire Alexander for a touchdown during a red-zone drill.

The daily tastes of professional success haven’t affected Shepherd’s low-key demeanor.

“I’m just trying to be consistent and make plays like that where I stand out,” he said after being Jamerson.

“If you prepare and work hard,” he added, “it puts you in position to be successful. I just try to come in each day and do those things.”

That work ethic was evident to Stick from Day 1 together at North Dakota State. In four seasons, Shepherd caught 188 passes for 2,841 yards and 20 touchdowns. As a senior, he caught 62 passes for 1,065 yards and nine touchdowns. His niche was the slot, where he caught 50 passes for 816 yards and eight touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. In the entire draft class, Shepherd ranked fourth with 3.73 yards per slot route, according to PFF.

“You get to the college level and your dream is to play at the highest level, which is the NFL,” Stick said. “You could tell from the first time I was around him at North Dakota State that he was a special player and was confident in himself. You could tell after his first couple games that he was going to be a big-time player for us, even as a freshman. He had a great career there and it’s helped him transfer it over to the next level.”

Shepherd’s hands and route-running skills are obvious. It’s the beyond-the-scenes stuff that quickly stood out to Kizer.

“He’s been consistent,” Kizer said. “I think he was probably the first guy in this locker room to learn the playbook – before any quarterback learned it. He was a guy who put a bunch of effort and time into making sure he was going to be prepared to play. We all knew that he had the ability, with the speed and his smarts and his route-running, to be able to play well. I think it’s been shown throughout training camp. He came into preseason Game 1 and did exactly what we expected him to do. I wouldn’t be surprised if he continued to do it all the rest of the preseason and hopefully into the regular season.”

Added fellow backup quarterback Tim Boyle: “I think the four of us (quarterbacks) knew in the spring he was going to be a talented guy. It was just a matter of kind of getting him some reps, getting his feet wet. But he’s just a smart instinctive player. He doesn’t make many mistakes. He has sure hands. When Shep’s out there, you know what he’s going to do. He’s going to do it right.”

That’s what he did at North Dakota State, but it wasn’t good enough in the eyes of scouts. In the draft, teams selected 28 receivers. Another 73 were signed in the immediate aftermath of the draft as free agents. Shepherd wasn’t one of those 101 receivers but his quiet confidence never wavered, giving him a chance to outlast most of them and win a spot on the 53-man roster.

“I just try to believe in myself,” he said. “Regardless of whether someone took a shot at me in the draft or gave me an undrafted contract, I just knew if I got the opportunity, I was going to make the most of it.”