Nov. 8, 2011
By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On another team, Khalek Shepherd might well be getting regular work at tailback. His teammates at Virginia, however, include Perry Jones, Kevin Parks and Clifton Richardson, major talents who are listed ahead of Shepherd on the depth chart at tailback.
He’s found another way to contribute. Shepherd, a 5-8, 185-pound redshirt freshman from Upper Marlboro, Md., has emerged as an explosive kick-returner for UVa (3-2, 6-3), which hosts ACC foe Duke (1-4, 3-6) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium.
True freshman Darius Jennings has run back 23 kickoffs this season — by far the most of any Cavalier — and he’s been solid in that role, averaging 19.7 yards per return. In the past four games, however, Shepherd has totaled 251 yards on eight returns, while Jennings has gained 127 on eight returns.
Shepherd has yet to break away for a touchdown, but he’s come tantalizingly close on two occasions. He had a 48-yard return Oct. 22 against NC State and another 48-yarder in Virginia’s most recent game, a 31-13 win over Maryland.
For the season, he’s returned 11 kickoffs for 304 yards. His average of 27.6 ranks 21st among players in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.
His background as a tailback gives Shepherd “such a natural inclination to see the holes as they open up,” Virginia coach Mike London said. “He’s done that successfully, and now he’s become a productive member of our special teams.”
Among ACC teams, Virginia ranks fourth in kickoff returns. Of the units that special-teams coordinator Anthony Poindexter oversees, kickoff return has probably been the most productive.
“One thing about Coach Dex, the Monday after the game we’re already getting our game plan going on where we’re going to attack, where the kickoff team is weak,” Shepherd told reporters Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “So we’re just buying into what Coach Dex tells us … It’s been working for us so far, so hopefully we continue to have this great success and hopefully score one.”
Shepherd, whose father, Leslie, is a former NFL wide receiver, began the season on the sideline. When William and Mary kicked off Sept. 3 in the opener at Scott Stadium, Jennings and Parks were back deep for the Wahoos. But after Parks suffered an ankle injury early in the season, the coaching staff decided it would be prudent to replace him on kickoff returns. Shepherd started slowly — after the first five games, he had only 53 yards on three returns — but he’s blossomed in the second half of the season.
At Gwynn Park High School, Shepherd starred as a returner as well as a tailback. Still, high school did not prepare him for the complexity of special teams at the major-college level.
“There’s a lot of game-planning, who has who, the blocking assignments, particularly what part of the field we want to attack,” Shepherd said. “It’s not just catch the ball and run. There’s a strategy that goes into it, and we work hard all week, every week, to make sure we have it down.”
His high school team did not devote much practice time to the return game. “Another difference is, the guys on the kickoff team are coming 100 miles an hour faster than in high school,” Shepherd said with a smile.
“It’s just been a learning curve for me. I’ve been getting used to the speed out there of the college game, and every week I’m getting more comfortable back there and trusting my guys more. It’s been a good year so far.”
Shepherd made his college debut as a tailback in the opener, carrying three times for 13 yards in UVa’s rout of William and Mary. His other carry came Saturday against Maryland and went for 1 yard.
He’d love to play more at tailback, of course, but Shepherd calls himself “probably one of the No. 1 supporters of” Jones, Parks and Richardson. “If they have a good game, I’m very happy. And just being a part of the offense and being on the kick return, I feel like my job is to make sure my offense gets to start with good field position so we can get points.”
His father, a Temple graduate, played seven seasons in the NFL, catching 183 passes for 2,382 yards and 22 touchdowns.
“I don’t know if anybody recognizes him when he’s in the stands, but he’s a pretty low-key guy, so he doesn’t put himself out there,” Shepherd said. “He tries to fit in with everybody else so he can watch me play and support me.”
Leslie Shepherd’s advice to his son?
“Really he just said, ‘Make sure you buy into what you’re doing, and whatever you’re doing, just be the best that you can be, wherever you’re at,’ ” Khalek said. “So every week my focus is to try to get better every week at the kick returns, and hopefully contribute more and more to the team so the offense can have a great place to start and get points.”
The victory over Maryland made UVa bowl-eligible for the first time since 2007. That it came in College Park, not far from where Shepherd grew up, made it sweeter for him.
“I’m just happy I got to go home to my home state and play in front of my family and friends,” he said. “That was the main thing I was concentrating on. I wasn’t concentrating on, ‘I need to beat Maryland, because that’s my hometown team.’ I just wanted to make sure I came home and had a good game in front of my family and friends. But the win was nice.”
WREAKING HAVOC: A crushing block on the opening kickoff Saturday by another redshirt freshman, 6-5, 235-pound tight end Jake McGee, helped free Shepherd on his 48-yard return.
Like Shepherd, McGee is No. 4 on the depth chart at his position. Like Shepherd, McGee is making a significant contribution on special teams.
A graduate of Collegiate School in Richmond, McGee was the UVa coaching staff’s choice as special-teams player of the game.
On the opening kickoff, McGee “decleated somebody and made a great block,” London said. “And then later on he got off a block and made a tackle on a kickoff.”
McGee also recovered a fumble after Maryland muffed a punt.
“He’s really kind of just blossomed into being that four-phase special-teams guy that has gotten a lot of reps and has become really a [good] football player,” London said. “Sort of like what Rijo Walker did for us last year. Jake has really taken on a role of being a guy that’s getting 18, 20, 22 reps a game, just through the special teams. He’s getting stronger, he’s getting bigger. The guys like to watch him when he runs down on the kickoff, because he’s fearless and he’ll seek contact and look to make plays.”
Ahead of McGee on the depth chart at tight end are juniors Colter Phillips and Paul Freedman and sophomore Jeremiah Mathis. But another offseason with strength-and-conditioning coach Evan Marcus should help McGee enormously, London believes.
“Right now he doesn’t have enough bricks in his pants to be an on-line point-of-attack blocker,” London said, “but he’s got that aggressiveness, he’s got that want-to, and just what’s missing right now with some of these guys is [size and strength]. But that’s coming, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if this time next year when he’s playing he’s 260-plus.”