He has played just a small percentage of snaps and even missed a game because of a groin injury.
Still, Kansas University wide receiver JaCorey Shepherd already has established himself as the Jayhawks’ big-play threat in the passing game.
In four games this season, the true freshman from Mesquite, Texas, has hauled in eight passes for 218 yards and three touchdowns. Of his eight receptions, four have gone for 20 yards or more, with three of those going for 48 or more. One of the most interesting things about his stat line shows a direct connection between Shepherd’s big plays and big things for the KU offense. All three of Shepherd’s TDs have come on long passes. Against McNeese State in the opener, he recorded touchdowns of 48 and 56 yards. Last week, in a loss at Oklahoma State, Shepherd again hit it big with a 68-yard TD catch late in the game.
“That’s just a knack,” he said of his tendency to make big plays. “One thing I’ve always worked on was every time I catch the ball, try to score no matter what I had to do. Just don’t go down on first contact. That’s my instincts.”
Shepherd, who seems to be more comfortable by the day, said his early playing time did not surprise him because he put in the work this offseason to earn a chance. KU coach Turner Gill said it was Shepherd’s skill that landed him on the field.
“I think he has some talent and has some very good hands,” Gill said. “He is also very determined and wants to be the best. He has that drive you look for in a player, and that is why we are playing him as a freshman.”
After making such a splash in the season opener — three receptions for 107 yards and two TDs — Shepherd said the time off was hard to handle.
“I’ve never been injured,” he said. “So having to sit out was pretty hard for me. I wanted to get out there and practice. But my main thing was just staying mentally focused.”
That’s the area Shepherd improved the most during his down time, and it showed last week when he scored against the Cowboys by running the same route he ran for his second TD in Week 1. That TD was also Shepherd’s favorite so far. The reason?
“I had to run a long way,” he said, his smile growing with every word. “It was just me going on a little over route, but everybody was occupied with other routes.”
In some ways, that’s been the story of Shepherd’s success so far. Because the Jayhawks possess other, more well known receivers, opposing teams most likely have game-planned to take them away first, allowing guys like Shepherd and fellow true freshman Marquis Jackson to make an early impact. Those two are not the only freshmen who have cracked the lineup this year. Far from it, in fact. But, according to the rest, Shepherd has been the rock star of the group so far.
“That’s our class,” said freshman safety Victor Simmons. “He’s representing. He’s the first one in our class to get out there and do his thing, and you definitely get excited when you see one of your classmates being successful.”