Nathan Shepherd jumped off the defensive line, got into the New York Jets’ backfield and saw Sam Darnold standing just a few feet away.
Then, the third-round draft pick put on the brakes.
“Oh, I stayed away from him,” a smiling Shepherd said of Darnold on Saturday during rookie minicamp. “No sir. You see the red (jersey) and you turn the other way.”
Quarterbacks are off-limits to contact in NFL practices, so would-be sack-happy defenders such as Shepherd need to tread lightly – especially when the No. 3 overall pick and future of the franchise is in the pocket.
But games are another story, of course, and the Jets will be counting on Shepherd and fellow rookie Folorunso Fatukasi to help make Sundays miserable for opposing offences. New York went big in the draft – after taking Darnold in the first round – by adding heft to its defensive line.
Over 630 pounds worth.
Shepherd is a 6-foot-4, 315-pounder from Fort Hays State. Fatukasi, a sixth-rounder from UConn, is 6-3 and 318.
“Same size, different players,” coach Todd Bowles said last week after the draft.
Shepherd and Fatukasi could get plenty of opportunities to play as rookies. Bowles said both can play nose tackle and spell Leonard Williams at defensive end, and the Jets will have them slotted for certain roles depending on what defensive scheme they want to use.
They might also be able to help offset the loss of Muhammad Wilkerson, who was cut during the off-season and has since signed with Green Bay. The Jets still have Williams and Steve McLendon on their defensive line, as well as Mike Pennel, Xavier Cooper and Henry Anderson, who was acquired in a draft-day deal with Indianapolis.
“I think that whatever the opportunity the Jets have for me is going to be more than enough for me,” Shepherd said. “If they need help in a certain area, then I would certainly feel honoured that they would come and look to me for that.”
Boosting a pass rush that has struggled to consistently get to the quarterback the last few seasons might be one.
“We’ll see,” Bowles said of Shepherd. “We expect him to have an impact as a defensive lineman, but sacks come differently for different people. As long as he does what he is supposed to do, which we’re sure he will, we’ll get better and we’ll see where the pass rush is and if the sacks come.”
Shepherd is a study in patience and perseverance. The native of Toronto redshirted his first season at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and then became a starter before leaving school for financial reasons.
Shepherd worked several side jobs for the next two years, dreaming of returning to football someday while fighting to keep motivated every day.
“Yeah, most mornings,” he said. “You’re thinking, ‘OK, I’ve got to go to work and this check isn’t really doing anything to improve my life today, that I can see.’ So, that was difficult, but you’ve just got to keep the dream alive and know that you’re that much closer.”
Shepherd was put into the 2015 CFL draft where he went unselected (not surprising given he hadn’t played in two years.) Hamilton added him to their negotiation list that December after his successful return to football – something they were able to do because he’d already been through the Canadian draft process. He was the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association defensive player of the year as a senior and he finished his three-year career at Fort Hays with 168 tackles, including 27 for loss, and 10 sacks.
Now, he’s in the NFL – something he’s still trying to grasp.
“I was fortunate enough to be able to keep my same number, so I’ll be No. 97,” he said. “I have my jersey from college, so I think when I take that picture of my college jersey and my pro jersey, that moment will sink in for me.”
For Fatukasi, this marks sort of a homecoming. He grew up in the Far Rockaway section of Queens, New York, and ended up going to UConn. He went through three coaching changes while he was there but thrived despite the constant turnover.
He had 45 tackles, including 7 1/2 for losses, as a senior and was tied for second on the Huskies with four sacks. Fatukasi finished his college career with 168 tackles and 14 sacks in 48 games while playing several positions on UConn’s defensive line.
“Having three different head coaches – and if you include the interim head coach, it’s four – and having a various amount of defences, I’ve kind of been all over,” Fatukasi said.
That versatility will be valuable for the Jets, who tend to move players around on the line to keep them fresh. Both Shepherd and Fatukasi could quickly find themselves part of that rotation, but they first need to get adjusted to playing in the NFL.
“I had to quickly get off the high of being drafted,” Fatukasi said, “and realize there’s still a lot of work to be done.”