Headed to his third NFL team in three years, former Kansas cornerback JaCorey Shepherd is hopeful that the Pittsburgh Steelers will become a long-term landing spot.
Shepherd, who spent last season as a kick returner for San Francisco, signed with the Steelers last weekend when they were searching for depth in the secondary. Three Pittsburgh cornerbacks have been sidelined with injuries since the start of training camp.
"I just love to play so really just getting an opportunity to play anywhere is a blessing,” Shepherd told PennLive.com.
Originally a sixth-round pick in 2015 by Philadelphia, Shepherd hasn’t had much of an opportunity to showcase his skills on defense. He missed the 2015 season with an ACL tear in his knee.
Chip Kelly, the coach who drafted him, said Shepherd was on pace to become the team’s starting nickel back before his season-ending injury in his rookie year.
When Kelly was hired by the 49ers, he signed Shepherd to a contract where he returned 21 kickoffs for an average of 21.7 yards. But after Kelly was fired in San Francisco, Shepherd was released by the 49ers following the NFL Draft.
Shepherd arrived to Saint Vincent College, where the Steelers hold training camp, on Saturday afternoon after receiving a call from his agent on Friday. He is considered a long shot to make the team’s 53-man roster when the season begins, but Shepherd said the key is to “get something on film.”
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin told reporters he was unsure if the team would use Shepherd to return kicks, but the former KU defensive back wouldn’t mind.
“If I get the opportunity to show that I can do that for them,” Shepherd told PennLive.com, “then I'm going to compete and I'm going to do all I can do and show all I can do just like I plan on doing in the secondary.”
In his senior season at KU, in 2014, Shepherd recorded 30 tackles and three interceptions.
During every football season, there’s always a few players who make unexpected rises through the depth chart.
As the Kansas football team opens its fall camp Monday, players have watched their teammates progress through summer weight lifting, 7-on-7 games, individual drills and other preparations for the upcoming year.
Which players will find their way into the starting lineup and making plays on Saturday? A few KU players shared their best guesses.
Dorance Armstrong Jr., the Big 12’s preseason defensive player of the year, said the entire defensive line unit has impressed him. He’s seen some progress from 6-foot-2, 245-pound sophomore Maciah Long, who has already played several positions for the Jayhawks including quarterback.
“He’s a guy that puts in the work to learn the defensive end position because it’s not the same as linebacker and stuff,” Armstrong said. “Everybody in general is just putting in the same amount of work to be better. They know we have to be better in order to be a better team.”
When Armstrong arrived to campus for his freshman season, he was undersized but used his speed to his advantage. He said sophomore defensive end Isaiah Bean has some similarities to himself a few years ago.
“He’s a smaller guy, but his speed and his physicality, I don’t even know a word for it, is just amazing,” Armstrong said of the 6-4, 210-pound Bean. “I like his motor. He goes 100 percent every rep for everything he do.”
The Jayhawks return plenty of depth at linebacker after several injuries at the position last year. Keith Loneker Jr., a transfer from nearby Baker University, recorded 43 tackles and four pass breakups.
Loneker and Joe Dineen Jr., who sat out most of last year with a hamstring injury, are expected to be starters, but they are confident there’s plenty of options to help the team.
“We’ve got a freshmen who came in during the spring named Kyron Johnson. He can play,” Dineen said. “He’s fast, he’s strong, he’s physical. He’s going to be a good one for us.”
Dineen recognized Osaze Ogbebor, who registered 12 tackles in six games last year, as a “solid guy” who will be in line for more playing time. Dineen added that he was impressed by Dru Prox, Denzel Feaster and his younger brother Jay Dineen throughout the summer.
“I think linebacker, we’ve got a lot of depth and we’ve got a lot of guys who can make some plays,” Dineen said.
On the offensive side of the ball, there’s plenty of attention on the depth at receiver, the quarterback race between Peyton Bender and Carter Stanley, and the speed of the team’s top running backs.
But the key will be on the offensive line, which adds a year of experience from last season. Sophomore Hakeem Adeniji found himself starting as a true freshman last year and he’s confident that the unit will only continue to improve.
“I think there’s a few guys to watch: Chris Hughes, an interior guy, Antione Frazier, Malik Clark, young guys, you have Charles Baldwin, an older guy in there,” Adeniji said. “We’ve got a graduate transfer, Zach Hannon. I think we definitely have a few guys who could compete for some spots.”
After completing summer practices, Adeniji saw one under-the-radar defensive end who he expects to make a big impact.
“I think Josh Ehambe is going to be huge for us this year,” Adeniji said. “There’s a lot of attention on the other guys on the defensive line and I think he’s come the furthest of almost anybody on our team from last year. I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people.”
Frisco, Texas — It’s difficult to make up time in recruiting, but that’s exactly what Kansas football coach David Beaty and his staff had to do when he first arrived on campus.
Looking over to junior defensive end Dorance Armstrong Jr., the Big 12’s preseason defensive player of the year, at the conference’s media days Monday, Beaty said it was a “miracle” that he was suiting up for the Jayhawks.
When Beaty was hired in December 2014, he had about a month to solidify his recruiting class prior to Signing Day. Back then, Armstrong was seen as an undersized defensive end and still looking for a landing spot.
Searching for hidden gems, Beaty and his staff identified Armstrong as one of their top targets. But they were still reaching out to Armstrong much, much later than most of the schools recruiting him.
Armstrong remembered when he received text messages from former KU defensive line coach Calvin Thibodeaux, who is now at Oklahoma, and realized that he watched him at one of his basketball games.
“I was like, ‘He was at a basketball game?’” Armstrong said. “(Thibodeaux) motivated me so much. He spoke positive to me all the time about what I could be and just put that in my head. I think I built on everything that he told me. I just kept that mindset of being humble and always wanted more.”
Following his final prep football season, Armstrong immediately turned his attention to his basketball team. Playing in the low post for North Shore High in Houston, Armstrong averaged 7.2 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds. His school won a state championship in his junior year.
How much ground did Kansas have to make up in recruiting?
Armstrong said he didn’t have a relationship with Beaty or really anyone from Kansas before the start of his basketball season.
“I think coach Beaty came to my high school, but he came for someone else,” Armstrong said. “I didn’t remember him at the time.”
One of the things that drew Armstrong to Kansas was the chance to play defensive end.
It seems like an obvious decision now, but some schools tried to convince Armstrong, who showed up to campus weighing around 210 pounds, to move to linebacker because of his size.
“I never played linebacker,” Armstrong said. “I was always a D-end. I kind of made myself stay at that same spot.”
During one in-home visit, Kansas coaches Clint Bowen and Thibodeaux were visiting with Armstrong and his family when assistant coaches from Missouri showed up outside of the home. The KU coaches did their best to stall, forcing the Missouri coaches to wait outside.
Focused on playing throughout the basketball season, Armstrong was on a limited schedule in terms of making visits to schools.
After traveling to Kansas, he decided it was the only place he wanted to check out.
“My mom came on the visit and she loved it,” Armstrong said. “She loved the coaches. Even the players made her feel like they were going to take care of me. That’s what they were doing. We don’t bring anyone in to just leave them hanging.”
Three years later and Armstrong arrived back in his home state as the face of the Kansas football program.
“We had literally a month to recruit this kid — a month,” Beaty said. “It was difficult because Missouri came in late. Thankfully they didn’t go on that visit because it made it a little bit easier for us.”
Frisco, Texas — Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby was happy to see the NCAA adopt a December signing period for football teams, but wants it to go a step further.
During the spring, the NCAA approved an early football signing period for high school recruits in December, which will run for 72 hours from Dec. 20-22. Those dates coincide with first three days of the midyear JUCO signing period.
For players who don't utilize the early signing period, the usual National Signing Day will remain on the first Wednesday in February, which will land on Feb. 7 for Class of 2018 recruits.
“I would suggest that we still have a lot of work to do there,” Bowlsby said at Big 12 Media Days at Ford Center. “We have data that indicates that about 70 percent of the Division I football prospects make their decision before the 1st of October and really would like to get the recruitment process over with.”
Instead of a formal signing day, Bowlsby mentioned recruiting windows, which he suggested teams could issue letters of intent and players have 14 days to sign it.
One of the statistics that Bowlsby cited was the average FBS team issues 233 oral offers to players, though only 25 players can sign per recruiting class.
“I'm not sure that a signing date is exactly what we need in today's environment,” Bowlsby said. “I have asked coaches, athletic directors, conference commissioners repeatedly over the last 12 months why we have a signing date…. The only answer I've ever gotten is because we've always had a signing date.”
Of course, there’s always potential pitfalls with an earlier recruiting window, which include coaching changes and cause-and-effect problems.
But Bowlsby said his main motivation for a new signing period system is a more genuine recruiting process.
“There's a lot of disingenuousness in the system, and I think we need to try to clean that up as much as we possibly can,” Bowlsby said. “It seems to me that maybe a signing window might be the answer to it, but we have a lot more work to do on it, and I wouldn't presume to say how it's going to turn out at this point.”
TCU coach Gary Patterson said it would be difficult to move signing dates to the beginning of the football season because coaches would have limited time for evaluations, along with time to work on their current team.
"All the mistakes that everybody's talking about right now with players, kids want to decommit, well, a lot of it is because they get talked into going to a place they don't know anything about," Patterson said. "They just read the name, and they really don't fit in. We've got to get back to kids going to our campus and see if they like the coaches, see if they like everything."
Preparing for the upcoming high school football season, the Times-Picayune created a countdown of the top 20 players in the New Orleans metro area, and two Kansas commits made the list.
In fact, both of the KU commits — Corione Harris and Anthony Williams — were selected in the Top 5.
Harris, a four-star cornerback from Landry Walker High, was ranked No. 2 in the countdown. The Times-Picayune noted his stellar defense in the playoffs last season against Terrace Marshall, the nation’s third-ranked wide receiver in the Class of 2018.
“Harris was one of the top cornerbacks in the state drawing each teams’ top receiver,” wrote Amos Morale III, of the Times-Picayune. “He was instrumental in making the Landry-Walker secondary one of the state's most difficult to play against.”
Harris is expected to play quarterback, along with cornerback, in his senior season at Landry Walker, which is looking to repeat as state champions. One of his top targets will be fellow KU commit Devonta Jason, a five-star receiver. Jason was not ranked in the Times-Picayune’s countdown.
Starting last weekend, Harris played in Nike’s The Opening, a premier 7-on-7 event in Oregon.
Along with Harris, running back “Pooka” Williams was ranked fourth. From Hahnville High, Williams runs past defenses with his elite-level speed and strong vision.
Last season, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Williams led the New Orleans area with 26 touchdowns in the regular season, which included 1,831 yards on offense.
“Williams, who has been clocked running a 4.27 in the 40-yard dash, now has three years under his belt and that experience will help him take that next step in 2017,” Julie Boudwin wrote for the Times-Picayune. “The Tigers will also be starting four 300-pounders on the offensive line which will open up the running lanes for Williams, a Kansas commit.”
KU’s fourth Louisiana commit, defensive end Josh Smith, didn’t make the Times-Picayune’s rankings.
The No. 1 player in the countdown, receiver Ja’Marr Chase, de-committed from Kansas in February, about a week after announcing his commitment. He’s expected to choose between TCU and LSU on Monday afternoon.
It’s been several years since Aqib Talib and Chris Harris suited up for the Kansas football team, but they continue to make a big impact for the Jayhawks.
Both Harris and Talib remain actively involved with their alma mater. Harris attended KU's spring football game in April. Two weeks later, Talib went to the team’s meet-and-greet event in Dallas.
On the recruiting trail, the pair of cornerbacks have helped shape an image of KU as one of the top places to develop defensive backs. And their play in the Denver Broncos secondary last season only strengthened that notion.
Talib, entering his 10th season in the NFL, had one of his most consistent years in the Broncos secondary. He grabbed three interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown, and had 12 pass deflections.
“Aqib Talib has always had the potential to be the game’s best cornerback, but in the past, we have only ever seen it in flashes, or for brief stretches before he lapsed and we saw him surrender big plays,” Pro Football Focus wrote. “2016 was the first year he put it all together, and went the entire year without surrendering a touchdown.”
Pro Football Focus noted Talib didn’t allow a catch longer than 26 yards last year. Plus, quarterbacks had trouble completing short passes against him.
“Talib allowed just 53.0 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught, for a passer rating of only 49.5, and for much of the year, quarterbacks were statistically better off just throwing the ball away than they were testing Talib in coverage,” PFF wrote.
Harris, who has been ranked as high as No. 4 by PFF in his career, had another all-pro season where he recorded two interceptions, 11 pass deflections and 57 tackles.
Entering his seventh year with the Broncos, Harris, an undrafted free agent out of KU, continues to make the most of his opportunities when the ball is thrown in his direction.
“Harris allowed an average of only 8.9 yards per reception in 2016, and 126 total yards after the catch, despite being targeted 84 times," PFF wrote.
Harris combined with Talib, and the rest of Denver's secondary, for the top passing defense in the league (185.8 yards per game).
According to PFF, Harris had 28 defensive stops, which was two more than any other cornerback.
Even with all of these all-pro distinctions, Harris doesn’t need to look far to find more motivation for next season.
In a vote from their peers, conducted by the NFL Network, Talib was ranked as the 37th-best player in the league and Harris was 63rd. When Harris was asked by Denver reporters about his ranking, he laughed.
“Just adds more fuel to the fire,” Harris told the Denver Post. “I might be the only first-team all-pro that didn’t make it into the top 50 probably. But, no, I need something like that. Getting all these awards and accolades and things, I guess it’s good to have one thing that keeps me motivated.”
With rising expectations for the Kansas football team, many eyes this summer will turn to Zac Woodfin, KU football's new director of strength and conditioning, who was hired in February.
Last summer there was a lot of attention to the number of Jayhawks who were running faster than ever before — around 40 players were hand-timed at 4.59 seconds or faster in the 40-yard dash — and offensive linemen who made a big jump in strength.
Woodfin, who was a prolific linebacker at UAB, has received a lot of praise during his last few stops as a strength coach. He spent the last two seasons at Southern Mississippi after coaching one season at his alma mater. At both schools, he made an immediate impact.
During his one year at UAB, before the program was disbanded (it will be reinstated this fall), Woodfin was named the Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year from FootballScoop. He helped transform a 2-10 squad into a 6-6 team that competed against some bigger schools.
“You can really tell how much bigger that we had gotten,” former AD Brian Mackin told FootballScoop. “And really comparing ourselves to Troy (opening-weekend win), you could see the difference. We were bigger than them, and that’s not always been the case in the past.”
In previous interviews, Woodfin explained four pillars in his approach as a strength coach: mindset, movement, nutrition and recovery. He puts an emphasis on mobility and flexibility, telling the Clarion-Ledger: "You can't get stronger and more powerful if you're tight and immobile."
When Woodfin entered the Southern Miss program, players and coaches quickly credited him for their success in a 9-5 season, which included a trip to the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
"He's one of the best motivators I've ever been around," former Southern Miss quarterback and Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year Nick Mullens told the Sun Herald in December 2015.
"You've got guys that you never really would have thought they would have come as far as they've come this year,” Mullens added. “Now the whole team is excited to work out, excited to make each other better and work as hard as we've ever worked. That's what coach Woodfin does, motivates and makes everybody around him better.”
Woodfin even picked up a lot of attention during a practice in his first few weeks at UAB. As a column from the Clarion-Ledger explains, Woodfin looked over when players were running stairs and saw an opportunity to help another person in the program.
Tim Alexander is an honorary member of UAB’s football program. He has his own locker and wears the No. 87 jersey at every practice and game.
Alexander, who was paralyzed in a 2006 car accident, was watching his teammates climb the steps during an offseason workout. Woodfin, who spent two years as an assistant strength coach with the Green Bay Packers prior to joining the staff at UAB, said he saw the look in Alexander's eyes and didn't hesitate.
"I didn't even have time to think about it, really," Woodfin said. "I ran over and asked him if he wanted to go to the top."
Woodfin put Alexander on his back and carried him up the long flight of steps before players saw what was happening and helped both of them to the top.
"Zac is a guy who really knows how to put his stamp on a program," KU head coach David Beaty said in a press release when Woodfin was hired. "He has a disciplined method of running his strength and conditioning program, yet knows how to make it fun for his players.”
It was no secret when David Beaty was named head football coach at Kansas that he was going to have a massive rebuilding process in front of him.
After a winless first season, the Jayhawks took some steps forward with a 2-10 record, including a home win over Texas.
With plenty of optimism heading into the summer, following spring practices, the Jayhawks are beginning to show their depth and progress at each position.
How would it compare when Beaty first took over the program?
“I would easily define that as night and day,” Beaty said in the Big 12’s spring football teleconference. “Night and day. A lot of that has to do with some of the guys that we’ve added to the roster. But also a lot of it has to do with those guys that we’ve added that we’ve been able to develop. Guys like Dorance Armstrong that came in at 212 pounds that sits at 253 pounds today.”
After playing the last two seasons with young and undersized linemen, Beaty is confident the Jayhawks will be better suited to compete with teams at the line of scrimmage.
Armstrong was chosen by the league’s coaches as a unanimous first-team all-Big 12 selection last year, and he has support on the defensive line from defensive tackle Daniel Wise, defensive end Isaiah Bean and several others.
On the offensive line, the Jayhawks return nearly their entire unit from last season and are adding some depth with newcomers.
Of course, another reason for all of the excitement surrounding the program is the success on the recruiting trail. According to Rivals.com, KU ranks 15th in the country with its 13 verbal commits in the Class of 2018.
“We tell our guys all the time,” Beaty said, “we’re about to go out on the road recruiting, and we tell them first, ‘We love you.’ Second, ‘We’re trying to replace you, so understand that. We’re going on the road to try to find someone better. Let that be your guide when it comes to how hard you’re working and preparing for this next season. If you’ll continue to do that and you’re any kind of competitor at all, it’s going to make us better as a team.’”
The Jayhawks certainly picked up momentum at the end of last season with their 24-21 victory in overtime against Texas. It was Beaty’s first Big 12 win and it gave the Jayhawks something to show for their hard work throughout the season.
Beaty said the goal is to turn that win into much more than one game.
“We’re hoping it will be one of those cornerstones in our program as we move forward, but only time will tell that,” Beaty said of the Texas win. “Our hope is that it doesn’t just kind of blow away in the wind as one of those games that just kind of came up and the stars aligned. We need it to be a program changer for us and we really believe it will be.”
For the third time in the last four years, the Kansas football program didn’t have a player selected in the NFL Draft.
But looking around the Big 12 Conference, it wasn’t just the Jayhawks who didn’t have much to celebrate in the three-day, seven-round spectacle.
The Big 12 ranked a distant last among Power Five conferences in players drafted. In fact, the Big 12 had one fewer player selected (14) than the American Athletic Conference (15). According to Sports Illustrated, it was the Big 12’s fewest draft picks since the conference was formed.
Michigan led the country with 11 players picked in the 2017 draft — only three behind the Big 12 — and Alabama followed with 10.
The Big 12 has some disadvantages on the number of players picked with only 10 schools and it doesn’t help when the University of Texas isn’t producing its usual level of talent. Only five players from the Big 12 were picked in the first three rounds.
Another factor could include the spread/Air Raid offense that’s become popular in the conference, which is vastly different than the pro-style offenses preferred by NFL teams with a quarterback under center.
It’s a long drop from 2010 when the Big 12 produced four of the top six draft picks: Oklahoma had three of the top four overall selections.
After the Kansas City Chiefs traded up to select Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and no other Big 12 player was picked Thursday, it marked the first time since 2008 that the Big 12 only had one player chosen in the first round.
There were warning signs ahead of the draft that it wasn’t going to be friendly to Big 12 talent. Only 19 players from the conference were invited to the NFL combine. Among the other Power Five conferences, the Pac 12 had the fewest with 46.
But the Big 12, which didn’t have a team qualify for the College Football Playoff, dropped from 26 players picked in last year’s draft to its worst-ever output.
Another surprising number, via NFL.com, 28 of the 95 early entrants went undrafted (29 percent), which included three players from the Big 12.
Players picked by conference
Pac 12: 36
Big Ten: 35
Big 12: 14
Big 12 draft picks
Round 1 — Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech (Chiefs, No. 10).
Round 2 — Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma (Bengals, No. 48).
Round 3 — Jordan Willis, OLB, Kansas State (Bengals, No. 73); D’Onta Foreman, RB, Texas (Texans, No. 89); Rasul Douglas, CB, West Virginia (Eagles, No. 99).
Round 4 — Dede Westbrook, WR, Oklahoma (Jaguars, No. 110); Semaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma (Redskins, No. 114).
Round 5 — Shelton Gibson, WR, West Virginia (Eagles, No. 166).
Round 6 — Jordan Evans, LB, Oklahoma (Bengals, No. 193); Vincent Taylor, DT, Oklahoma State (Dolphins, No. 194).
Round 7 — Josh Carraway, OLB, TCU (Titans, No. 227); Elijah Lee, LB, Kansas State (Vikings, No. 232); Kyle Fuller, C, Baylor (Texans, No. 243); Christopher Carson, RB, Oklahoma State (Seahawks, No. 249).
After passing summer classes last year, Kansas safety Mike Lee finalized his decision to enroll early at KU.
Lee, reclassifying from the 2017 class, graduated early and opted to skip his senior year of high school.
That meant he had an earlier start to his collegiate career, and he proved himself as one of the top up-and-coming defensive backs in the Big 12 Conference. Athlon Sports named Lee on their college football all-freshman team.
An earlier start to college football meant missing out on some of the perks of his final year at Landry Walker in New Orleans. His high school won its first state football title in December.
But Lee won’t miss out on everything. Earlier this month, Lee said he had plans to attend his senior prom this weekend.
“I don’t have a date, but I have a tux,” Lee said. “I’ll wear all white with a pink polo and some sparkling pink, white shoes.”
Living 13 hours away from his hometown New Orleans, Lee said it would be a fun opportunity to spend time with his friends and family — especially his mom.
Before finalizing plans to attend prom, Lee cleared the trip with his coaches and academic advisors.
“I was like, well, might as well go to my prom — see if I can,” Lee said. “When they say I can, I was excited.”
Lee, who also plans to walk across the stage at his school’s graduation ceremony in May, has stayed connected to his former school throughout his time in Lawrence.
He arrived at KU in August, just ahead of fall camp. He sat out most of the first three games before playing in the Big 12 opener against Texas Tech. A few games later and he was penciled into the starting lineup and his hard hits were a regular occurrence on Saturdays.
Throughout the season, Lee constantly heard from familiar faces back home, which only made the transition to his freshman season easier.
“When I got here, every day either my principal or all of my teachers called me and asked how I’m doing,” Lee said. “I’m like, ‘I’m doing great.’ He was like, ‘I’ll be watching you on Saturday.’ I would be like, ‘I’ll be looking forward to that.’ Every time I had a good game or a bad game, they would call me tell me what my mistakes was or what I did good.”
Happy with his decision to reclassify, Lee is thrilled to have the best of both worlds when he returns to his high school.
“Really, people were just like,” Lee said, “‘If you leave early, just go and do what you do. Just play your game.’"