Former Bulldog standout earns starting spot in Bearcats’ secondary
The grind finally paid off for former Zephyrhills High School standout Ja’Quan Sheppard as he earned the spot as starting cornerback at the University of Cincinnati.
Sheppard, a senior, comes into this Saturday’s season opener on the road against Arkansas as the Bearcats’ boundary corner. He earned his spot following the example of last year’s star-studded secondary of Sauce Gardner, Coby Bryant and Bryan Cook, who anchored the back end on one of the best defenses in the country.
Those three studs are playing on Sundays in the NFL and Sheppard is ready to take his place as the lockdown corner.
“I worked for it,” Sheppard said. “I went through some discouragement, but I put the work in behind the scenes. I knew I was capable of having my spot, but I had to be patient.”
Gardner, who was Sheppard’s roommate during camp and away games, had a fantastic career at Cincinnati not allowing a touchdown in three seasons. Bryan was the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back.
“I had to wait my turn,” said Sheppard, who mainly played special teams for the Bearcats. “I knew when my turn came, what I was going to do. I am looking forward to Saturday and showing the world what I can do.”
The Bearcats were the surprise team of the 2021 season claiming a place in the College Football Playoff following an undefeated season including a win over Notre Dame in South Bend. Cincinnati’s season ended with a 27-6 loss to Alabama in the national semifinal game.
Sheppard and Coach Luke Fickell are looking to show the college football world that last season wasn’t a fluke and the Bearcats can be a national power.
Sheppard learned plenty during that historical season, but it was the lessons he learned in Zephyrhills that made him the person and player he is today.
“Zephyrhills taught me everything from the stand point of knowing that I had to outwork the kids who were better than me,” Sheppard said. “Zephyrhills was always the underdog. We weren’t picked first for anything. We always came out on top.
“My boys at ZHS pushed me and I always knew I was ready. If it wasn’t for the coaches and the players I played with, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today.”
Throughout Sheppard’s football career, his family kept him going and kept him humble. They were his biggest fans.
He knows how valuable they and their support while he waited for his time motivated him to be patient. They knew his time would come.
“They encouraged me,” Sheppard said. “They are the one of the main reasons I am here today. Without them, I don’t think I would be here. They told me to wait. They knew what I was capable of doing. They knew I had to wait my turn.
“I always came to them and they were always there. They told me what to do and what not to do. Coming from Zephyrhills and being a star and coming here where I’m not noticed, I just wanted to play. They helped keep me going.”
Sheppard keeps tabs on his Bulldogs and knows several players on the roster and some coming through the ranks. He’s been there. He know the drill and he has grinded everyday to earn his spot at ZHS and University of Cincinnati.
He has some advice for the young Bulldogs who are looking up to him.
“Make sure your grades are where they need to be,” Sheppard said. “You can’t go anywhere without the grades. Also, make good relationships off the field and finally, trust your coaches. Buy into the work. Do what you can to become the best player and best team player you can possibly be.”