Will Sheppard: Becoming his best self

In his fourth year at Vanderbilt University, Will Sheppard is doubling as a leader and playmaker for the Commodores.
Will Sheppard has blossomed into a star at Wide Receiver throughout his four-year tenure on West End.
Will Sheppard has blossomed into a star at Wide Receiver throughout his four-year tenure on West End.
Hustler Multimedia/Sofia El-Shammaa

Will Sheppard is more than just an athlete for Vanderbilt. He’s a star. A leader. A program cornerstone. Now entering what is more-than-likely his final season with the Commodores, the senior has set some lofty goals for himself. 

“My biggest goal is to play to the best of my ability,” Sheppard said. “[To] be the best receiver in the conference and the nation, and become a high-round [NFL] draft pick.”

Sheppard unofficially committed to the Commodores via X, formerly known as Twitter, on Dec. 17, 2019, before officially signing with the team a couple of months later on national signing day in February of 2020. He chose Vanderbilt over 13 teams, including West Point, Richmond and UTSA. 

Sheppard, a three-sport athlete from Mandeville High School, La., was the third-highest rated player in Vanderbilt’s 2020 recruiting class. His elite athletic ability had the team’s football staff more than excited.

“He’s just effortless. He’s smooth, he glides,” former director of player personnel Austin Everson said. “The guy’s an elite athlete.”

His athleticism went on full-display during a breakout senior season that saw him catch 77 passes for 1,454 yards and 28 touchdowns. Yet, it wasn’t just football that he excelled at. Sheppard – the son of two Division I athletes – also excelled on the track and on the basketball court. 

During his senior season at Mandeville, Sheppard averaged 19.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. Sheppard feels confident that playing basketball had a positive impact on his football career. 

“I think it helped with lateral movement, being able to cross over translated to the field,” Sheppard said. “Especially at receiver, with releasing off the ball, basketball definitely helped.” 

Sheppard’s father, Willie, was a cornerback and running back at Louisiana Tech from 1999-2001, and introduced his son to the sport at a very young age. While Sheppard may have begun his football career on both sides of the line of scrimmage like his father, it wasn’t long until he made his transition to receiver. 

“I started playing around 8 or 9,” Sheppard said. “After my first year playing left tackle and defensive end, it just started to take off, and I started to fall in love with it.”

Listed at 6’3”, 198 pounds, Sheppard was built to be a receiver. Not only is he slender and quick, but he also possesses elite jump-ball ability with his towering height. It’s something that has lent him an advantage over many smaller cornerbacks, especially when it comes to scoring touchdowns. 

During his first season in 2020, Sheppard entered a bit of a tough situation. He was already far down the depth chart as a freshman, with senior Chris Pierce Jr., junior Amir Abdur-Rahman and sophomore Cam Johnson well ahead of him. After a full season with the Commodores, Sheppard was ready to take a step forward. As a sophomore in 2021, Sheppard led all Commodores with four touchdown receptions, gaining 560 yards through the air (second on the team). His breakout game came during a rainy home matchup with the UConn Huskies, when he had 8 catches for 119 yards and 2 touchdowns. 

In 2022, Sheppard took it to a different level. Many of the team’s top receivers — Pierce Jr., Abdur-Rahman and Cam Johnson — had all left for one reason or another, and there were unsurprisingly question marks at wide receiver. 

Sheppard silenced all questions.

He caught 60 passes for 776 yards and emerged as the true “WR1” on a team that desperately needed offensive playmakers. He wasted no time doing so, either, catching two touchdowns in three of the team’s first four games of the year. Sheppard ended his 2022 campaign with nine touchdowns. He etched his name in the school’s history books as he caught the game-winning touchdown with just 32 seconds remaining. The 8-yard scoring scamper helped the Commodores upset Kentucky on the road and end their 26-game SEC losing streak. 

His nine touchdowns not only led the team, but ranked second in the SEC and 11th in all of the FBS. His efforts were good enough to earn him Second team All-SEC honors, per the Associated Press. Despite being NFL draft-eligible, Sheppard returned to Nashville for his senior season. 

Not only did he know he could be in store for a massive year, but he also knew that, as the only senior wide receiver on the team, he could serve as a veteran presence for the young Vanderbilt receivers. 

“I think you just have to lead by example,” Sheppard said. “Show how to do things, show the right way, especially with the younger guys. Teach them the right way to do things, go first in the reps, show them the techniques, pull them to the side and do things of that sort.”

Vanderbilt’s receiver room – while extremely talented – has limited in-game experience. Juniors Garmarion Carter, Richie Hoskins and Quincy Skinner Jr. have played sparsely throughout their first two years on West End. Jayden McGowan only has one season under his belt, and Junior Sherrill and London Humphreys are brand new to the program. 

Sheppard’s leadership skills are already in play, as McGowan has excelled throughout his first two games (12 catches for 142 yards). Humphreys hauled in a 32-yard touchdown during Vanderbilt’s Week Zero win over Hawaii, and Carter and Sherill have been involved in big-chunk, explosive plays themselves. 

Through all of his work with the youngsters on the team, Sheppard has remained his dominant self, picking up right where he left off and proving that he is a top receiver in the nation. After hauling in two touchdowns against Hawaii, he replicated that success and brought in two more during Vanderbilt’s 47-13 thrashing of Alabama A&M. With 12 catches for 130 yards and four touchdowns, he’s proven more than deserving of his recognition on the Biletnikoff Award Watch List

Sheppard will look to keep his hot start going when he and the Commodores travel to Winston-Salem, N.C., to take on the Wake Forest Demon Deacons on Sept. 9.

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About the Contributor
Aiden Rutman, Senior Staff Writer
Aiden Rutman (‘25) is a student in Peabody College majoring in human and organizational development and minoring in communication studies. He formerly produced The Hustler’s sports podcast, Live from West End. In addition to writing and podcasting, Aiden is an avid New York sports fan, and he loves playing sports, spending time outdoors and trying new foods. You can reach him at [email protected].
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