Heading into the 2018 season, it was anyone’s guess who would emerge as the top receiver for North Dakota State. The Bison had just lost wideout R.J. Urzendowski to graduation, as they did with Zach Vraa two years prior. Of course, NDSU loves its pass-catching tights ends too, but they lost two of those in Jeff Illies and Connor Wentz.
The No. 1 option returning to the Bison roster was Darrius Shepherd. A steady receiver, the senior’s statistics never jumped off the page. Still, he established himself as a reliable target in his first three seasons, leading the Bison in receptions as a sophomore and junior.
2017’s graduating trio took over half of that season’s receiving touchdowns with them, leaving a void in production for the passing game. Ben Ellefson caught three scores in 2017, but NDSU’s next two leading returners in the category were running backs. Of course, Shepherd was back, but he only caught one touchdown in 2017, the winning score in the national championship game. Overall, there were legitimate questions regarding the Bison receiving corps.
Fast forward four games, and Shepherd — captain for the second consecutive season — has answered the skepticism. The Blue Springs, Missouri native broke out in NDSU’s 21-17 Dakota Marker win, catching five passes for a career-high 118 yards and a touchdown. Against an SDSU team known for its passing game, it was Shepherd who tallied the most receiving yards on the afternoon.
Quarterback Easton Stick went to Shepherd early and often, targeting him on each of the Bison’s first three drives. His second reception of the game went for 34 yards, which set up the game-tying score.
Had it not been for an offensive pass interference call on Josh Babicz, the touchdown would have been his. Shepherd reeled in a pass over the middle of the field, fighting through a tackle to dive for the end zone, but the penalty negated his efforts.
A much-deserved touchdown came two drives later. Shepherd motioned across the formation and was not followed. Stick hit him on a deep slant route, wide open in a pocket of SDSU’s zone defense. The receiver caught it at the 14-yard line and outran safety Brandon Snyder for six, giving the Bison their first lead of the afternoon.
Running all over the field, it took an IV treatment at halftime to keep Shepherd hydrated. NDSU coaches deployed the receiver in various spots along the formation, hoping to unlock his high paced play.
“We have to find ways to get him the football. We moved him around a lot of places, and he made plays in all those places,” NDSU head coach Chris Klieman said afterward. “He’s a special, talented guy. That’s how he plays every day at practice. It’s a million miles an hour.”
Shepherd’s numbers on the afternoon could have been even higher too. In the first quarter, Shepherd raced down the sideline and blew the lid off the Jacks’ secondary. Free safety Makiah Slade flew across the field to bat the ball away before he had a chance to race away for a touchdown. Additionally, two passes from Stick ran too high for the 5-foot-11 receiver, though he conceded that they were plays that should have been made.
All in all, it was another productive day at the office for Stick and Shepherd. “We just clicked today,” Shepherd remarked. “We did a great job preparing all week to take advantage of the situation we were in. We executed, and it worked out today.”
Shepherd is averaging 56.8 yards receiving per game this season, which would set a career mark. More importantly, the senior has grabbed two touchdowns and is showcasing how dynamic of a receiver he is capable of being. Even if the Bison’s style of play doesn’t favor the passing game, Shepherd will continue to be the quiet leader of a quietly impressive aerial attack.