Russell Shepard isn't necessarily trying to be a leader. But he got a "C" on his chest last year, he continues to dominate on special teams and he's starting to make an impact on offense. He plays with enthusiasm, he isn't afraid to speak his mind and…well…his teammates listen.
"I try not to be [an outspoken leader]," said the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' fourth-year wideout and special teams captain. "I try to sit back and just do my job, but it's just in me. I played with a lot of great football players in college, a lot of natural-born leaders. This game is only played its best when you play with passion and play with emotion. It just naturally comes out and my teammates accept it. As long as they keep accepting and it's genuine from my behalf, I'm going to keep doing it."
If that's what constitutes being a leader for the Buccaneers, Shepard will gladly take that on that role. After all, since arriving in Tampa in September of 2013, he's never met a job he wouldn't accept.
"He does a lot for us, he wears a lot of hats and if he had his way, he'd be wearing more hats," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "He's asking for everything. He'd like to throw it, catch it, run with it, tackle it, kick it. But no, he's a versatile guy. Shep brings a certain presence to our locker room. He's very vocal and guys that are vocal and can back it up with good play are always welcome in your locker room."
The most recent Shepard chapeau, just donned this past Sunday in San Francisco, is being part of the formula to replace Vincent Jackson, who was lost to injured reserve early last week. Koetter and his staff divvied up the available flanker snaps among a quartet of receivers, including Shepard, Adam Humphries, Cecil Shorts and Freddie Martino. The four played a roughly equal amount of snaps in the 34-17 win over the 49ers, but it was Shepard who turned it into the most production, with a career high five catches for 77 yards and a touchdown. All five of his receptions produced first downs, none bigger than the diving five-yarder he made early in a second-quarter drive that put the Bucs ahead after they had fallen into a 14-0 hole.
Shepard had a very strong training camp and preseason, and he was already playing about 10 snaps a game before Jackson's injury. He had bursts of playing time on offense here and there during his first three years in the league, and he caught his first touchdown in a win at Philly last year, but Sunday's game was by far his best opportunity yet on offense.
"It's just amazing," said Shepard. "Any time you can step up for your team, regardless of what is going on, it's a great opportunity. Any time I can come in, whether it's blocking a nine-technique on the line, or running a deep route to clear it out for Mike Evans, or if it's me myself being the primary target on a pass play, I'm willing to do it. I'm the ultimate team guy. Right now in my career this is really helping me out. I'm being able to really develop from a receiving standpoint and take advantage of these opportunities."
The Bucs will likely continue to use all of their receivers, developing specific packages for each of them. However, on Sunday at least, Shepard proved to be exactly the type of complement the Buccaneers needed for Evans, who was blanketed by the Niner defense early but eventually got free for eight catches, 96 yards and two touchdowns.
"Huge," said Evans, as an assessment of Shepard's contributions on Sunday. "Russell Shepard played great. Cecil Shorts played great in the run game – his stats didn't show it, but he played great for us. Hump did everything he was supposed to do. We have a lot of capable receivers. People don't know that, but if they watch us play, they'll see."
The aforementioned touchdown drive that was kept alive by his diving catch actually ended with the ball in Shepard's hands. On second-and-nine from the San Francisco 19, Jameis Winston tried to hit Shepard in the back left corner of the end zone but the pass was just out of reach. On the next play, Shepard moved to the right side of the formation and got inside position on a 49ers defender on a route into the middle of the end zone. Winston trusted Shepard enough to look his way again, this time on a critical third down, and it sounds like he's going to continue to trust him moving forward.
"He's a different person," said Winston. "The way that he thinks, the way that he works, the way that he applies his technique. He's a hard worker, he has tremendous heart, he has tremendous passion and that's one thing that you can say about Shep. He's different and when you're different, that makes you successful. He's just a great player for us, he's one of our main guys. You all probably just asked me about him because he scored a touchdown, this weekend was a big game [for him], but if you look at film week in and week out, he's going to show up and he's going to be one of our key players."
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Winston marveled at the way that Shepard could sprint down the field full-speed on punt coverage and then moments later run routes on offense. Many players, the quarterback suggested, would be asking for a breather in-between those tasks, but Shepard doesn't want to miss a thing.
"I take pride in doing the dirty work," he said. "I take pride in doing the things that most receivers don't usually do, or have to do. I've had a few different teammates throughout the years, a few different staffs, and they really like receivers that can get in there and do a little bit of the dirty work. You start adding in passes and things like that, that's when you kind of get the 'blowing-up' thing. I'm definitely grateful for the compliments, but it was one week. I took advantage of the opportunities."