FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – Two rookies are listed as starters on the Jets’ depth chart for Monday night’s opener against the Lions. One of them is quarterback Sam Darnold. The other has gotten somewhat less attention.
That would be defensive lineman Nathan Shepherd, a Canadian who played at Simon Fraser in British Columbia and later Division II Fort Hays State in Kansas before being drafted in the third round by the Jets.
Now here he is, slated to line up for the first time on “Monday Night Football.”
Could he have imagined being in this position say, a year ago?
“I would say back then I kind of went by the idea that you have to fake it until you make it,” he said after practice on Friday. “It might be something you believe inside. You may not share that with everyone you meet, but it definitely was a goal I was working toward, so right now everything is working according to plan.”
Shepherd said there was no precise moment at which he thought he might secure a starting role. Rather he just kept showing up for work, and eventually figured out based on practice hierarchy where he stood.
On one hand, Shepherd said that despite the magnitude of Monday’s stage, “At the end of the day, it’s still football.” On the other hand, he admitted there will be some nerves. “Most definitely, yeah. That’s a great part of the game, for sure.”
Coach Todd Bowles said the team liked what it saw on his college film, and that he has continued to impress since arriving in the spring.
Defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers said Shepherd has been “checking all the boxes” for a defensive lineman’s required skill set.
Bowles laughed when someone asked him whether Shepherd has the same sort of “even-keel personality” as Darnold.
"Shep is completely different,” he said. “A D-lineman and quarterback mindsets are completely different. He's been a joy to coach and to be around. He works hard. He doesn't take a play off and doesn't take a day off and we like that about him.”
Shepherd acknowledged the step up from Division II “definitely felt different,” but he credited the coaching staff with preparing him and other rookies for the transition.
The 6-4, 315-pounder also credited defensive linemates such as nine-year veteran Steve McLendon.
“What I appreciate about some of the veterans, especially Steve, is the standards that they have, and how they’re able to help raise the bar for us every day and just keeping that on our minds,” he said.
Shepherd said he is too focused on the present to think about how far he has come, preferring to wait until winter for such thoughts.
What does it say about him that he has gotten this far?
“I would say that for anyone, whatever you’re doing, sometimes you’re going to have different opportunities to do different things,” he said. “Whatever those opportunities are, make the most of them, because you never know how things are going to pan out for you.”