TAMPA — When receiver Russell Shepard hauled in a touchdown pass in the Bucs' preseason win Monday against the Bengals, he showed a flash of promise that his elite play on special teams could carry over to offense.
For two years, Shepard has kept a job on the roster by being the Bucs' leading tackler in kick coverage. His 14 solo tackles on special teams matched the most of any player in the NFL last season.
And as it turns out, if you need materials — "sand, gravel, glass, dirt, concrete," he says — hauled to or from a construction site in the greater Houston area, Shepard's also the guy you should call.
The 25-year-old, who came into the league as an undrafted free agent in 2013 out of LSU, used some of his rookie salary to start a family business — Shep Boys Trucking — after his father and grandfather had worked as dump-truck drivers.
Shepard bought a truck — the company now has four and is working on a fifth — and business has gone well enough to hire four drivers, with his parents, wife and brother working for the company as well.
"It's been a huge thing for us," Shepard said. "I actually last year made more money in trucking than I did in football. It's going very well. I want to create opportunities for people, and that's a great thing."
Last year Shepard made the second-year minimum of $495,000, and his NFL business plan is much the same: Find a niche, do the job well, then expand.
"He's really good. Just watch how hard he practices," special teams coordinator Kevin O'Dea said of Shepard, who had two special teams tackles in the preseason opener against the Vikings, then another Monday. "I talk about 'Effort today equals results tomorrow.' If you work hard, you see results. 'Shep' … people say, 'Oh, man, we have to go against him this week?' "
Shepard has shown potential before. As a high school senior in 2008, he was rated as the No. 1 overall prospect in Texas, as well as the nation's top dual-threat quarterback. In his final game in high school, he accounted for 538 yards of total offense and six touchdowns.
But at LSU he got lost in the depth chart, splitting time among quarterback, running back and eventually wide receiver, where he played with future NFL stars Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Rueben Randle.
NFL teams projected him at different positions — Bucs general manager Jason Licht, then with Arizona, liked him as a defensive back — and he signed with the Eagles, only to be among their final cuts. He was claimed by the Bucs and played almost exclusively on special teams, finishing with six tackles and a forced fumble while going the entire season without a single pass thrown his way.
Last season, when Bucs receivers battled injuries, he stepped up and had four catches for 63 yards, and he showed more of that Monday, with a 12-yard end-around and two catches, including his touchdown.
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"Great special teams player, plays hard every down," coach Lovie Smith said. "Normally if you're good there and you give players more reps, they show you they can get the job done at other positions, too, and that's what (Shepard has) done. He's still playing hard as ever on special teams."
The Bucs' deepest position might be receiver, with five rookies challenging returning players Louis Murphy and Robert Herron for backup spots behind starters Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. Shepard's skills on special teams should keep him on the roster, and the "explosives" offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter saw Monday will get him more looks on offense as well.
"He played very well as a guy that had primarily been a special teams player in the past," Koetter said. "We're developing our depth. I'm glad I don't have to make those (cut) decisions."
Shepard wants to expand his skills away from football as well. In the spring, he wants to get his commercial driving license so he can step in if the trucking company needs a hand behind the wheel.
"This business, I think, is going to last even after the NFL," said his father, Russell Sr., 47, who has been a truck driver for 25 years. "This has been my father's dream, has been my dream. You always want to hand your kids down something they can work at. They say, 'Teach them to fish and they'll eat forever.' He's just a great kid, always has been."
The Bucs' third regular-season game next month is in Shepard's hometown, Houston, so his family will be on hand to watch him play. On Monday night, Shepard's father was working an air-conditioning side job in a customer's attic and couldn't help but celebrate when he heard his son's touchdown on the radio.
"When I heard it, I almost fell through the roof," he said. "I'm so proud of him."
And if he keeps up his improvements on the field, the NFL could even end up as his highest-paying job in the end.
"(Special teams) has brought me my whole NFL career at this point," Shepard said. "I came in as a guy that was kind of raw at the position. Special teams gave me the opportunity to find my niche, find what I do well in this league and keep growing. I'll just continue doing what's needed, whatever it takes to be here."
Contact Greg Auman at firstname.lastname@example.org and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.