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Aug 25, 2013

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NAME: Khalek Shepherd

POSITIONS: Tailback/Return specialist

VITALS: 5-8, 185-pound redshirt junior

HOMETOWN: Upper Marlboro, Md. (Gwynn Park High School)

COLLEGE CAREER: Shepherd, who wears jersey No. 23, redshirted in 2010. A year later, he saw little time at tailback — five carries for 16 yards, one catch for 10 yards — but averaged 26.2 yards on his 16 kickoff returns. As a redshirt sophomore, he set UVa single-season records for kickoff return yards (929) and attempts (42). He also was the only Cavalier to return a punt in 2012. Shepherd gained 89 yards on 23 punt returns, with a long of 25 yards.

As a reserve tailback, he rushed 19 times for 122 yards and one touchdown. Shepherd caught six passes for 129 yards and one TD, a 73-yarder against Louisiana Tech.

OUTLOOK FOR 2013: A year ago, Larry Lewis was on the coaching staff at Nevada. He’s now the special-teams coordinator and running backs coach at UVa, which means he and Shepherd spend a lot of time together.

“Coach Lewis is a great guy,” Shepherd said. “He’s easy to talk to. He’s very knowledgeable about the game, about special teams and running backs. I take every point that he gives me and put it into the game I already have.”

Has Lewis figured out how to use Shepherd this fall?

“Yeah,” Lewis said, smiling. “I figured out that we should use him a lot. I think that’s the biggest thing. He definitely has really improved his game, as far as his strength, his speed. He has some things that he does very, very well that we need to take advantage of.”

EASY AS 1, 2, 3: UVa’s new offensive coordinator, Steve Fairchild, wants to establish a powerful running game. As the Aug. 31 opener against BYU nears, three tailbacks have separated themselves in training camp: Shepherd, redshirt junior Kevin Parks and Taquan Mizzell, a true freshman whose nickname is Smoke.

“It’s a long season,” Lewis said, “and I think we’re going to have to use all three.”

Shepherd said: “I already told Coach Lewis and Coach Fairchild that whatever they want me to do, I’m willing to do. Whether it’s receiver, running back, I’m just ready to help the team out offensively and contribute more.”

MAN ON THE MOVE: Shepherd, whose father, Leslie, played wide receiver in the NFL, ran indoor track at UVa last winter, an experience that has paid dividends for him on the football field.

“I’m feeling quicker, hitting the holes better,” said Shepherd, a sprinter on the track team. “When I’m opening up, I’m feeling faster with my form, so it’s beneficial for me.”

During an 11-on-11 period at a recent practice, Shepherd burst past the line of scrimmage, found himself alone in the secondary and, untouched, sprinted about 50 yards to the end zone.

“I’ve learned to be more patient with these runs, so that one I just slid left and was waiting for a hole,” he said. “[The defense] overflowed, and I just hit it, and that’s when the track came in.”

Shepherd plans to join the track team after football season ends. “I don’t know about outdoor, because of spring ball, but if I can, I will,” he said. “Whatever opportunity I get to get better, I’ll take it.”

MANY HAPPY RETURNS: On kickoffs, Lewis said, the top four return men coming out of training camp are Shepherd, Mizzell and juniors Darius Jennings and Dominique Terrell.

Virginia’s options on punt returns include Shepherd, Mizzell and Terrell.

Shepherd could end up starting on both units again this year. “Whoever is best,” Lewis said. “It doesn’t matter to me. Whoever’s the best. A lot of times they aren’t the same guy. Sometimes they are.”

LEARNING EXPERIENCE: Shepherd said he has improved as a return man under Lewis’ tutelage.

“It all starts with the other 10 guys up there,” Shepherd said. “Coach Lewis has those blocking scenes down pat, and he’s just telling me what to read and what they’re setting up for me, so I can know already where I’m going to go and don’t have to think too much. Just catch the ball and go.

“Last year was my first year back there, and what I’ve learned so far is just to be relaxed and don’t put too much tension on myself, because I have the ability to go back there and catch them. I just have to believe that I can.”

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