NDSU's Stick-to-Shepherd combination has been tough on opponents
FARGO — The first three seasons for North Dakota State wide receiver Darrius Shepherd produced 40, 45 and 41 receptions. Pretty hard to get more consistent than that.
He and quarterback Easton Stick have been on the same page their entire careers, but now they're taking it to the fine-print level. The connection has been like glue with the 5-0 Bison heading to Western Illinois on Saturday, Oct. 13, for a Missouri Valley Football Conference game.
"I think it's the result of playing together for four years," Shepherd said. "We're just trying to make plays on the field for this team. I think he goes through his reads really well and I'm just trying to find an opening and be that guy."
They made a couple beauties for touchdowns last week in a 56-31 win at Northern Iowa. A 20-yard scoring play in the first quarter got the Bison on the board trailing 14-7 and halted a wave of early UNI momentum. A 22-yard connection in the third quarter gave the Bison their first lead.
On that one, Stick released the ball before Shepherd had turned around from his break on an inside post route.
"We saw that look and he'll know I'll be at my spot and he's going to trust me to be there," Shepherd said. "It's that connection knowing your guy is going to be there and trusting each other."
The two players are roommates who watch game film together. The take turns looking at opposing secondaries trying to figure out potential openings in the defense.
"So we're on the same page," Shepherd said. "I think my preparation has improved immensely since my freshman year."
Shepherd leads the team with 17 receptions. Next on the list is senior Dallas Freeman with seven.
Since the Bison started their national title run of six FCS titles in seven years, they've had at least two primary wide receiver threats every year beginning with Warren Holloway and Ryan Smith in 2011. Holloway had 77 receptions and Smith 44.
Smith and Zach Vraa led the team in 2012 and '13. Vraa and RJ Urzendowski led the way the next two seasons, with Shepherd joining the duo in '15. Shepherd and Urzendowski were the top receivers in 2016 and '17.
It would take a great rest of the season, but Shepherd is on pace to challenge Vraa's school career reception record of 195. He has 143.
"If they're not going to cover Shep, we'll keep throwing it to him," said Bison head coach Chris Klieman. "I think everybody would agree if Shep's going to be open, let's keep zinging it to him because right now we're moving that kid all over the place and people don't know where he's at."
Freeman has made a couple of big plays, most notably a 54-yarder against South Dakota State. Desmond Cain has four catches, all in one game. Redshirt freshman Christian Watson contributed in the win over Northern Iowa last weekend with a reception he took for a big first down. The Bison took the redshirt off true freshman Phoenix Sproles, but he has yet to make a catch.
"Christian Watson made as good of a play that there was in the game," Klieman said. "We're going to go where the play tells us to go. But when people are leaving Shep uncovered, he's a tough matchup."
Shepherd has lined up at more spots on the field than previous years. He's been inside at the slot. He's been wide at the line of scrimmage. He's been everywhere but running back.
"But I'll take some carries," he said with a smile. "It's been fun to play different positions. I think I have full complement of the offense being here so long so it's been good to get to different spots to be successful."