PULLMAN – A football team will never have more practices available to it before its next game than the first day of spring workouts.
And yet, from the first second of his initial time on the field as Washington State’s new inside receivers coach, JaMarcus Shephard has been coaching like he’s running out of time.
Even before the rest of the team left the locker room, Shephard was putting his receivers through a drill requiring them to catch tennis balls fired out of a makeshift cannon.
Shephard dared the last player to arrive to see what would happen if he showed up late again.
Many football coaches coach with passion. Shephard coaches with urgency. In the brief seconds between plays he will run onto the field to talk a little smack to a defensive back, chide or congratulate one of his receivers and demand the player get back into position for the next play.
It’s a marked difference from the demeanor of his predecessor, Dave Yost, who left after the 2015 season to become the quarterbacks coach at Oregon. The change from Yost’s subtle coaching to Shephard’s demanding style has been a shock for an inside receivers group that probably needed one.
“Whatever he’s doing, he’s doing 100 miles per hour,” WSU sophomore Kyle Sweet said. “It’s a nice change-up to have. I think there’s a lot of energy going around and that’s something we, as a group, needed last year.”
The Cougars have a veteran inside receiving corps. The top four options for the two available positions all have plenty of game experience. They’ve all had some success and have solid understandings of WSU’s offense.
Coming from Western Kentucky, where Shephard’s receivers were among the most prolific in the country, the adjustment to Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense has not been difficult.
“He knows it better than most of us already,” WSU’s River Cracraft said.
But Shephard was unsure how the established group would react to a new voice in their ears.
“It was a matter of wondering whether or not they were going to be ready to work,” Shephard said. “To be quite honest about it, they haven’t been that at all. They’re grinders.”
But there is much more Shephard wants to teach. His fiery persona is not a reflection of a former coach and his intensity is not derived from football. Rather, Shephard emulates a youth group leader who was just as demanding when teaching about faith, philosophy and fatherhood as Shephard is when coaching a crossing route.
Shephard wants to fulfill that same role for the receivers he coaches.
“So many young men who are missing the mark in those areas,” Shephard said. “At least for the time that they’re here at Washington State, they’re going to get the right type of role model.”
Fort Wayne, Indiana, a county seat with a quarter of a million people, is like so many other Rust Belt cities for which declining industrial jobs meant urban blight and increased crime.
Shephard did not have an easy childhood, nor was he an easy child to raise. He still regularly calls his grandmother to thank her for providing for him and his little sister.
“Where I saw a lot of young men, that group of guys that I grew up with, who didn’t make it,” Shephard said. “They would have been better football players than I was. They were good students. They were good people. For one reason or another, they didn’t make it. All this passion stems from that from wanting to make it and be successful in everything that I do.”
He learned that passion from Carl Johnson, the director of the Simba Rites of Passage program at the Cooper Teen Center in Fort Wayne. The program provided mentorship and a foundation for black teens who were deemed “at risk for delinquency.”
Johnson’s spirited love took. Shephard was a college football player at Division III DePauw University, which he attended on an academic scholarship. Rather than enter coaching, Shephard worked for the NCAA’s Education Services Division and then with the National Center for Drug-Free Sport.
Only then, after a chance meeting with WKU associate professor Fred Gibson, did Shephard enter football coaching as a graduate assistant for the Hilltoppers. He quickly worked his way up, and was recently offered the offensive coordinator position at WKU, but turned it down to expand his coaching horizons at WSU.
In teaching leadership and responsibility, as well as routes and technique, the Cougars hope Shephard’s intensity and passion also rub off.
“To me, if you’re not pushing mentality and effort as a position coach, then you’re not doing your job,” Shephard said. “You’re not doing what you were hired to do. So I push that every single day, no question.”
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