Today, on National Signing Day '15, we welcome two dozen new faces to the program and The Process. On the day we excitedly project depth charts, play what-ifs, and obsess over new players, it is fitting then to reflect on our final 2014 senior, right tackle Austin Shepherd. For two years, Shepherd has been as solid of a player on the line as you could ask, an unheralded but-steady and silently dominant player.
Merle Kessler said it best, "players, like prostitutes, are in the business of ruining their bodies for the pleasure of strangers." Nowhere is this adage truer than for the quietly wounded men along the lines. Alabama, like few other places, celebrate our big uglies. Where else can interior linemen like Chance Warmack (and his belly) become a star and fan favorite. Ours is a savvy audience, and as such, please join me in recognizing the little-lauded beast that is Austin Shepherd, and with his recognition, take time to reflect on the incredible violence that these players endure on every snap.
High School and Recruiting
Austin Shepherd arrived at Alabama by way of Suwanee, Georgia, where he attended North Gwinnett High School. At North Gwinnett, Shepherd began his career as a guard, before moving to tackle for his last two seasons with the Bulldogs. Unlike freakishly large guys with jumbo-jet wingspans, Shepherd's specialty was using his compact frame, powerful upper body, and love of violence to maul defenders at the point of attack.
Shepherd must have shown his skill in tight spaces, as well as his ability to play multiple positions along the line, in the 2008 NIKE Tuscaloosa camp, because he soon became an early priority for Alabama's run-friendly staff. Despite being a three-star player, and ranked the 46th overall tackle / 18th overall guard for NSD '10, Shepherd's recruitment did not last long. In fact, he had only received two offers before quickly committing to Alabama.
"I've already talked to my family about this. I'm 100 percent set. I'm done with the process. I'm 100 percent Alabama, and I'm not planning on de-committing, no matter what. ... I'm just hard-nosed and love to hit, so I think I could fit in well there."
His words in 2009 would be prophetic.
Austin's throwback blue-collar attitude, coupled with early graduation and enrollment in Spring of 2010, better positioned Shepherd to see the field at an earlier age. More impressively, despite guys like massive D.J. Fluker at RT, Shepherd even made the cut as a tackle. He redshirted that first year as a true freshman, and with Alabama loaded along the line. However, as a redshirt freshman in 2011 Shepherd moved up the depth chart, spelling Fluker, and earned playing time in seven games at the position. The next season, with Fluker still entrenched at the starter spot, Shepherd again earned playing time as his backup. That year, he would appear in ten games. A combination of good health, perseverance, and talent would pay off as an upperclassman.
As a Junior in 2013, following the loss of three linemen the NFL (as well as the defection of OL coach Jeff Stoutland,) Shepherd would be pressed into service as a "veteran" on Coach Cristobal's rebuilding unit. He would prove to be stalwart in the role. That season, Shepherd quietly appeared in all 13 games for the Crimson Tide, making his first start versus the Hokies in the Chick Fil A Kickoff Classic.
I say "quietly," because, in what would be a trend over the next two seasons, you just did not hear Austin's name mentioned much on Saturdays - that was because he was quietly excelling. For instance, in just his second start, on the road versus Texas A&M's relentless pass rush, Shepherd did not miss a single assignment and recorded three pancake blocks. Meanwhile, Alabama backs repeatedly followed big 79's lead over the right side en route to 205.6 yards per game. No simple road-grader, Shepherd was simply excellent as a pass blocker. As draft analysts have noted of his talent, and a good summary of Shepherd's career,
"he performed quite well taking over for D.J. Fluker at right tackle last season and possesses a combination of size, power and surprisingly light feet...he shuffles well laterally and can anchor against bull rushers in pass protection."
All of these skills were displayed in perhaps Shepherd's most challenging and successful game, the 2014 Sugar Bowl vs. Oklahoma. Until that time, not a single sack had been recorded against Austin Shepherd, this for an offense that put the ball in the air over 300 times. In that Sugar Bowl, where the offensive line generally looked helpless against the Sooner pass rush, Shepherd missed no assignments and had two pancake blocks. And, while we do not have QA statistics for this season, Shepherd's deafening silence has been noticed, as as was the cement to an often-fluid right side of the line. Yet, Verne and Gary never gushed over his play; he just grabbed his lunch pail and whipped the man in front of him -- and en route helped the Alabama offense to one of its most dynamic, productive seasons in school history.
Personal and Professional
In a forward-looking move, Shepherd reverted to his old guard position for the Senior Bowl, and dropped weight to hit that magical 315 pound mark for a nimble interior player. It is this position where he both projects most favorably and where he will garner the most attention from GMs.
Dane Brugler, a senior NFL Draft Analyst for NFLDraftScout and CBS Sports, said he didn't know much about Shepherd before this season, but has been "pleasantly surprised" by Shepherd's abilities. Brugler believes making the move to guard at the Senior Bowl will greatly benefit Shepherd leading up to the combine and draft. Shepherd is still listed as an offensive tackle in all of the draft projections. According to ESPN.com, Shepherd is the 15th best tackle prospect and No. 191 overall. CBSSports.com lists Shepherd as the 14th best tackle prospect and No. 132 overall. The site projects Shepherd to be drafted as high as the fourth round.
After the combine and Alabama's Pro Day, expect Austin to move up even higher. An experienced tackle, with the nastiness and throwback meanness of a guard, who can play both positions and sustain the point of attack against bullrushing defensive tackles is not to be despised and will be a sought after commodity.
Shepherd earned his Masters degree in Sports Management this December, after earning a bachelors in 2013, also in Sports Management. He leaves, like Jalston Fowler, a two-time National Champion, a two-time SEC Champion, and a two-time alum. We wish to thank him for his quiet, but steadfast career, and wish him the same silent dominance going forward.
Roll Tide, Austin.
Ed Note: As Geaux rightly notes, Shepherd also has created the Austin Shepherd Foundation, which is closely affiliated with the Children's Hospital in Birmingham, where he makes monthly visits and fundraises for kids. Of all of Austin's tremendous achievements, this is perhaps the most striking and the one of which he ought to be most proud.