It’s more than having Russell Shepard’s playing ability back on the field Saturday that brings a smile to the faces of his LSU Tiger teammates.
“He brings the team a lot of juice,” fellow wide receiver Rueben Randle said. “He’s ready to make plays.”
“He talks a lot of smack,” cornerback Tharold Simon said.
“I think he’ll have something to prove,” said quarterback Jarrett Lee, one of the players who stands the most to gain when Shepard takes the field for No. 2 LSU’s showdown at No. 16 West Virginia (7 p.m., ABC).
Shepard is like the Tigers’ genie in a bottle - powerful and, at least to this point, mysterious.
Kept off limits from reporters this week, it’s as though the junior from Houston has acquired a mythic quality as he prepares for his first real action since January’s Cotton Bowl.
Shepard returns after being declared ineligible for three games after he spoke to a teammate over the summer about that teammate’s pending interview with an NCAA investigator.
According to his fellow Tigers, he hasn’t been idle.
“You can tell from his route running he’s got more enthusiasm,” cornerback Morris Claiborne said. “He’s been going at it with the twos (second string), getting his reps in. He’s been giving us a good look, making us better.”
Take a good look at Shepard with the backups, because Randle said that’s about to change.
“The coaches are going to put him back in a starting spot,” Randle said after practice Tuesday.
The offense isn’t the only area where Shepard is expected to make an immediate impact. He’s also likely to get his chance to return kicks, a department in which the Tigers have been rather tepid in the post-Patrick Peterson era.
“I don’t think it will take time for Russell to get back into it in any way,” coach Les Miles said Monday. “I am sure that he will make some appearances on special teams.”
Claiborne welcomed the idea, though Shepard’s involvement could cost him more than anyone. He has six of LSU’s nine kickoff returns so far for a 23.0 yard average, though he sounded ready to defer to Shepard if asked.
“I love to see him back there returning kicks,” Claiborne said. “We all know what Russell can do in open space when he has the ball.”
In his first two seasons as a Tiger, Shepard proved his worth as LSU’s best multi-dimensional threat.
Lining up as a wide out, in the slot and in the backfield, Shepard had 33 carries for 249 yards and a touchdown as a sophomore. He also had 32 receptions for 226 yards and two scores, though that total was down from his 45 catches for 294 yards and two TDs as a freshman in 2009.
Then there’s always the danger that Shepard - a quarterback at Houston Cypress Ridge where he earned Parade All-American honors - will finally one day throw a pass out of the Wildcat formation.
“He’s a great athlete,” Lee said. “The dimensions he brings to the offense, there are so many different things he can do if we need him to.”
“I expect him to have a big impact on this game,” Claiborne said.
The only drawback - if can be called that - to Shepard’s return is the progress LSU’s offense has made without him.
True freshman Odell Beckham Jr., who caught a game-high eight passes for 61 yards in Thursday’s 19-6 win at Mississippi State, has started the past two games opposite Randle. Kadron Boone started the opener against Oregon.
Despite the growing chemistry with young receivers like Beckham and fellow freshman Jarvis Landry, Lee said he isn’t concerned about upsetting the continuity of the offense with Shepard’s return.
“Odell and Jarvis have been making plays for us and we’re going to keep going to them when the opportunity presents itself,” Lee said.
“Both (Beckham and Landry) are very good players that deserve touches and we’re going to make sure that happens,” Miles said. “We’re going to find a way.
“I don’t think adding a guy like Shepard will upset the chemistry. The chemistry stirs really well with Russell in the mix.”
A mix that perhaps only becomes that much more explosive now that Shepard is back.
“He’s a special, special talent,” offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert said. “You can’t replace him. He’s going to be fired up. He’s going to be a real help to us against the Mountaineers.”