Sheppard loves the role of the underdog

Former ZHS football standout Jaquan Sheppard and the Bearcats looking to take down “Bama in college playoff

Being an underdog on the football field is not something Jaquan Sheppard is afraid of.

In fact, he learned that lesson on the gridiron at Bulldog Stadium where he shined as a wide receiver and defensive back for Coach Nick Carroll’s Bulldogs. Friday, he and his Cincinnati Bearcats assume the role as underdogs again as they square off against the University of Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington Texas.

“We like being the underdogs,” said Sheppard a cornerback for Coach Luke Fickell’s Bearcat defense. “From the mental standpoint of always being the underdog, “I learned that as a Bulldog. We were the underdogs and we came through. In high school. I felt I always belonged on big stages. Playing at Zephyrhills made me ready for all this.”

Sheppard and the No. 4 Bearcats have been underdogs all season on their way to becoming the first non-Power 5 team to make the College Football Playoff after finishing as the nation’s only undefeated team.

“Alabama is good and everybody knows that,” Sheppard said of the team’s approach to face the Crimson Tide. “We respect them and what they have done. It doesn’t matter what they have done in the past. It’s only about the present and what’s going to happen Friday.”

Friday is the day where college seasons end and others continue toward a NCAA Division I National Championship.

“We are all in a situation where it’s win or go home,” Sheppard said. “You don’t want your seniors to finish with a loss. They have been with you since day one. We’re just going to fight like our back is against the wall.”

It wasn’t until Cincinnati traveled to South Bend Oct. 2 and handed Notre Dame 24-13 defeat, that they began to get the respect they deserve.

“Going into South Bend, we already knew what we were. We knew what type of team we were,” Sheppard explained. “Nobody else did. They were on the outside looking in. We had faith in each because of how we prepared.

“We never got cocky about it. We didn’t get caught up in the hoopla of it. We were worried about only one thing. We knew what we had to get done. From that moment on I knew it was going to be a special game for us. We weren’t worried about their history. We were worried about playing football.”

Football became Sheppard’s ticket in Zephyrhills from Zephyrhills PAL at Krusen Field to strapping on the orange ZHS helmet at Bulldog Stadium. In his senior season, he excelled on both sides of the ball. On offense, he had eight touchdowns (six receiving and two rushing). Defensively, he led the team with four interceptions, including a pick six.

“I hope everyone back home is cheering for us,” Sheppard joked. “I really appreciate everyone back home, especially those who were with since day one. I want to bring my big ring and jerseys to Zephyrhills High School and leave my mark.”

There were options for Sheppard following his senior season, but there were similarities to the Cincinnati program with the Zephyrhills football program.

“When I chose Cincinnati, I meshed with the coaches, the players, the city and everything about the school,” Sheppard said Wednesday from Dallas. “Coach Fickell was the most genuine of all the coaches I talked to in the recruiting process. I saw a lot of Coach Carroll in Coach Fickell.”

Sheppard knows there are young players coming up through the football programs that made him the man and player he is today. He has a message for them.

“For the kids who are looking up to me, you can be in the same position as me or even better,” Sheppard said. “All they have to do is trust in themselves and God.”

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