Ja’Quan Sheppard and Zay Perkins grappled with each other down the left sideline, the Maryland corner and Towson receiver wrangling for position. Perkins muscled past his matchup as the ball neared, sending Sheppard falling out of bounds on his back.
The pass fell incomplete and a flag flew into the air. Sheppard initially celebrated with his hands clasped behind his back. But when the referee made his call, he pointed to the Terps defense and called pass interference on the corner.
Sheppard’s teammates in the secondary instantly greeted the dismayed corner with encouragement.
“You’re good, you made a good play. That was something that we need,” he recalled them telling him. “As a corner, I ain’t like that call and I’m pretty sure a lot of people didn’t like that call, but I didn’t get in my feelings about it because they helped me.”
Sheppard, a transfer from Cincinnati, is a prime example of Maryland head coach Mike Locksley’s philosophy: Build the bulk of your roster through recruiting and developing high schoolers and use the portal to fill needs.
The Terps pass defense ranked 15th in the nation in expected points allowed per pass play last year, according to CFB Graphs. But two integral pieces of that unit, corners Deonte Banks and Jakorian Bennett, were selected in the first and fourth rounds of the 2023 NFL Draft, respectively.
That left a hole for Sheppard, a 2022 First Team All-Athletic American Conference selection, to fill. He started well, save for that penalty, allowing just one catch on five targets as the Terps allowed just 128 total passing yards to Towson.
“His size, his speed, he was probably the best available corner in the transfer portal,” Locksley said. “To be able to get a guy like Ja’Quan to come here when he could have gone anywhere in the country, I think is a testament to the things we’re doing and also to what we have to offer.”
Sheppard’s pedigree and his strong first game do not necessarily mean he can replicate the impact of Banks and Bennett.
Sheppard was targeted 64 times in 2022 and allowed catches on 56.3 percent for a total of 481 yards, per Pro Football Focus
Bennett and Banks both performed better. The former allowed catches on just 44.4% of targets and allowed 309 yards. The latter, the best of the bunch, gave up just 258 yards and allowed catches on 43.3% of targets.
The transfer did finish with a conference-high nine pass breakups, more than Bennett or Banks, per PFF. But he’ll need to improve to match the play of last year’s stellar duo, especially in a conference with superstar talents like Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, Chris Autman-Bell and more.
That process has already started, with Terps cornerbacks coach Henry Baker pushing Sheppard in spring practices to the point that the corner initially felt he was being targeted. The two had a conversation that helped them understand each other’s intentions and brought them closer.
“At first it was rocky,” Sheppard said. “’d feel like I did something good, but he’d tell me you can do this better because he knows exactly the type of player I can be.”
Maryland’s culture of hard work and the emphasis it placed on brotherhood drew Sheppard to the program, he said. Cornerback Tarheeb Still hosted him during his visit and outlined the group’s losses along with how the Terps’ playing style meshed with Sheppard’s.
Sheppard joins a secondary that still returns emerging safeties Dante Trader Jr. and Beau Brade and Still, a nickelback turned outside corner.
“They make everything easy when they’re out there,” Sheppard said of his safeties. “.I know a lot, but I don’t know as much as them. And so they tell me situations before it even happens. … it’s super fun playing with them. They know exactly what they’re doing, so it makes my job easy as well.”
They began developing that relationship in February, talking in the locker room after workouts — sometimes for three to four hours a day — to build chemistry even before they got on the field.
“When we got to football, it was just easy. … because we talked the same way that we talked off the field,” Sheppard said.
That connection will continue to improve — as will Maryland’s opponents, necessitating an improvement from its secondary Sheppard said he expects.
“That relationship is just going to get tighter,” he said, “so it’s going to get way more scary.”