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Jeff Kolpack, Published October 25 2013

Shepherd's versatile skills make him an unsung asset for Bison

FARGO - The postseason awards in Division I FCS football will begin trickling out at the end of next month, a potpourri of honors from all across the country. Unfortunately for Bryan Shepherd, he may be missing one.

Somebody needs to give an award for best all-around role player. If there was one, the North Dakota State senior would be a slam dunk. He’s football’s equivalent to basketball’s “sixth man,” the guy who comes off the bench and sparks his team.

“The key for me is to contribute in all phases,” Shepherd said.

Those phases include a prominent role as a strong safety, either backing up starter Colten Heagle or playing alongside Heagle when an extra defensive back is needed.

“You can’t get jealous at all. I knew my role coming in,” Shepherd said. “I understand what Heagle brings to the table, which is a lot. Competition brings out the best in everyone. He wants to do better, and I want to do better. On film, we’re both doing a good job.”

On film, his kickoff coverage skills are off the charts. He’s been dynamic all season as the “bullet,” a coverage position on the outside whose job it is to try and be the first one to the returner.

That special teams position requires speed, athleticism and, perhaps most importantly of all, fearlessness. At 5-foot-10, Shepherd hits harder than his 180-pound frame would indicate.

“You have to be aggressive by nature,” said Bison linebacker Grant Olson. “It’s not an easy game.”

The demeanor Shepherd shows on the field contrasts his personality off it. He seems quiet, polite and chooses his words carefully and speaks them somewhat slow and softly.

He’s on the tail end of a college career that first started when NDSU assistant coach Conor Riley recruited him when Riley was an assistant at Nebraska-Omaha. Shepherd played at Olathe North High School in Kansas, a standout program that annually produces good players.

“I saw a dynamic football player, a guy who was very explosive,” Riley said. “As we got to know him, we saw a very tough kid and a true competitor.”

So the Division II Mavericks figured they got a steal when Shepherd signed with them.

“I remember when (an Omaha assistant) first talked to Bryan Shepherd, he said he’s not a Division II football player,” Riley said. “He’s a Division I player, and we were fortunate to have him.”

Fortune, however, turned to misfortune when Omaha unexpectedly and suddenly dropped its football program after the 2010 season. It left Shepherd a free agent.

“I’ll never forget the moment he came into my office,” Riley said. “One of the things you always tell recruits is we’re always going to look out for your best interests. He was looking for help. Unfortunately at that moment, I didn’t have all the answers. I saw a young man who was hurt.”

NDSU proved to be the therapy.

If Omaha hadn’t dropped its program, Shepherd would not have realized his dream of playing Division I football. As a huge bonus, he played on back-to-back FCS national title teams.

More than that, football has come somewhat full circle when Riley was hired last spring. Shepherd said it was “crazy” for him when that happened.

Same goes for Riley, who latched on at Sacramento State for two years after the Omaha fiasco.

Former Mavericks coaches didn’t hesitate to call Riley and congratulate him, and they all basically said the same thing when it came to Shepherd.

“As a bonus, you’ll be able to see Bryan Shepherd graduate,” Riley said, quoting the other coaches. “No doubt in my mind when I was offered the job that was something I most definitely took pride in.”

As a bonus, he gets to see Shepherd use his speed in different ways. Head coach Craig Bohl said he’s one of the fastest players on the team, if not the fastest. He was timed at 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash last spring.

And most important, Shepherd is saving his best season for last.

“You always hear that you’ll never forget your senior year,” he said, “and you always want to go out with a bang.”

Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia