FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – Nathan Shepherd could go from playing Division II football to starting at defensive end as a rookie for the Jets.
Shepherd has flown under the radar as other rookies, namely Sam Darnold and speedy, elusive back Trenton Cannon, have garnered more attention. But the third-round pick has been playing end with the first team defense and is listed a starter on the team’s unofficial depth chart.
His size – Shepherd is 6-foot-4, 315 pounds – has helped put him in a position to start where Muhammed Wilkerson once did. But Shepherd’s mentality and approach also have had a major impact.
“Everything I do on the field and off the field is absolutely necessary for our organization to be successful,” Shepherd said after practice Wednesday. “That’s my standard: doing my best to be irreplaceable and to really be cornerstone on our defensive line. That’s one of my goals. It’s something I strive towards every day. It’s a focus of mine.”
Shepherd, like all of the Jets, is looking forward to showing what he can do in a real-game situation. He’ll get his chance Friday night when the Jets kick off the preseason against the Falcons at Met Life Stadium.
Defensive line coach Robert Nunn said Shepherd “has got himself in a good position” heading into the preseason. Shepherd said he’s excited about “being able to talk with my pads” and the opportunity to “stack a great day onto another great day.”
Shepherd said that’s an expression he’s learned from the veterans, and he’s all ears around them. He’s leaning heavily on fellow defensive end Leonard Williams, nose guard Steve McLendon and Mike Pennel, whom the Canada-born Shepherd looks at as an inspirational figure.
Pennel was undrafted five years ago and now he’s on his second contract and could have an increased role on the D-Line in his second season with the Jets. Shepherd calls Pennel an “underdog-type story that really inspires you.” But Shepherd, who played for Fort Hays State in Kansas, doesn’t view himself the same way.
“I would say there is some aspects of it,” Shepherd said. “I wouldn’t say I ever felt like an underdog. I don’t see myself disadvantaged or anything else. I don’t make excuses. I’m just here to play ball like everyone else.
“I didn’t feel that being a Division 1 player or anything in my history negatively impacted me. I thought that this was my journey. There’s many different ways to skin a cat. This was my journey and I’m very proud of it. I feel it’s made me who I am. I was definitely very happy to be drafted where I was.”
Jets coach Todd Bowles said he isn’t surprised at how quickly Shepherd has acclimated himself. Bowles didn’t have any preconceived notions about Shepherd because he didn’t play for a major program.
“I don’t think it matters,” Bowles said. “The brief time he was at the Senior Bowl going one-on-one, you could see him going up against guys drafted really high. You could see he was a good football player. I don’t think the school matters. If you’re 315 and you’re strong, you’re 315 and you’re strong whether it’s Division 1 or 2.”
Shepherd appreciated that Bowles said that.
“He’s a no-nonsense type of guy,” Shepherd said. “He doesn’t necessarily see your history or your pedigree because at the end of the day when you step on this green, you wear that helmet, you’re a Jet. His mentality is, ‘We believe in you. You believe in you, let’s get on the field, let’s do what we have to accomplish.’ Everything else isn’t even a factor.”
For Shepherd, it’s all about stacking good days on top of good days.