'Mr. September' is Taking His Talents to Boulder, CO
Will Sheppard is the latest Louis Vuitton luggage brought to Colorado by Coach Prime; and VP thinks he's the next VOLUME PIG in that WR room...
Did I mistake you for a sign from God?
- Sleep Token, music band
OK, so this season might not have gone exactly according to plan from a College Football standpoint for the Buffs, but it was a resounding success from a CFF standpoint. Not only did Shedeur Sanders have a productive campaign (especially in the first half of the season), but his WRs each feasted at various different points in the season too. Boundary WR Xavier Weaver was the most consistent, but slot receiver Jimmy ‘Himy’ Horn also had some big games. Travis Hunter was exceptional when given the opportunities too.
Full disclosure, I was a non-believer. In fact, I’m still skeptical about the Buffs on the overall CFB-front, but I’ve been sold from a CFF angle. I missed out in 2023 (more or less), and I’m determined to not let that happen again in 2024.
One of the reasons why that it is, is because one of my favourite CFF WRs— former Vanderbilt playmaker Will Sheppard, has officially transferred to Boulder. It all happened rather quick really, leaked text messages suggest that Prime reached out first to initiate contact, and it was all gravy from there….
Now, you might be wondering why Will Sheppard’s nickname is ‘Mr. September’. It is in fact because — while playing for the often over-matched Vanderbilt Commodores — he had a propensity for performing exceptionally well during the out-of-conference schedule in September. Once October hit, however, and the SEC schedule officially kicked off, things tended to revert towards lower levels of production, most notably, he would struggle to score TDs in the same quantity that he did in the Septembers of years past.
It’s rare during the transfer portal bonanza for a move to align so logically for both parties, but this move should prove beneficial for Colorado, and Sheppard, who will now have an opportunity to put together a full campaign of high level production. With Weaver moving on, it’s logical to think that Shepp will step into that role. It remains to be seen what Hunter will be doing, I’m guessing it’ll be more of the same from 2023— he’ll have some big games at WR, but will also be limited due to splitting reps at DB. That leaves just Jimmy Horn and TCU transfer Cordale Russell as competitors in the room. NC State’s Terrell Simmons may also play a part in this equation, but I’m still zeroing in on Sheppard as the WR1 for next season.
Sean Lewis is Gone— Trust Pat Shurmur?
The move for Sheppard would have been ideal if former CU OC Sean Lewis were returning in 2024, if for no other reason than it would present less question marks for the playcalling next season. Lewis — who’s now the HC of the SDSU Aztecs — was replaced by longtime NFL assistant Pat Shurmur. I generally dislike relying on NFL patterns of production for CFB purposes, but in the absence of any better alternative, it is a necessity.
Shurmer last served as OC of the Denver Broncos in 2020 and 2021. Prior to that he was the head coach of the New York Giants for two seasons (2018, 2019), and the OC of the Minnesota Vikings for one season (2017). He served as the TEs coach for the Vikings the year before, and actually became the interim OC later in that season (2016). From 2013 to 2015 he had his most successful run from a WR standpoint, OCing the Philadelphia Eagles with Chip Kelly as the head coach.
Starting with Denver, his two seasons there were not pretty. His offences failed to produce a 1000 yard receiver in either season, with the lead target man— Jerry Jeudy in 2020, catching 52 passes for 856 yards. He was targeted a staggering 113 times that season over 16 games, which is about seven per game, so that’s nice.
The production was better at his previous stop. Odell Beckham Jr. cleared the thousand yard threshold in 2018, catching 77 of his 124 targets for 1052 yards and six scores— the kicker being that he did this in 12 games (average of 10 targets per contest). That’s a pretty nice concentration of volume from our man Coach Shurm.
What’s even filthier is that two other receivers that season also got over 100 targets. Ironically, one of them is also named Sheppard— Sterling Sheppard to be precise, who caught 66 of 107 targets for 872 yards and four scores. The other was actually RB Saquon Barkley, who was targeted 121 times! This season tells me one thing about Shurm: if he’s got elite playmakers, he wants to funnel the volume to them. I imagine that with a player like Barkley in particular, he was so good that they probably just wanted to find ways to get him the ball in space as much as possible.
Unfortunately, the following season was not a success from the WR production standpoint. The leading receiver ended up being Darius Slayton, who caught 48 of 84 targets for 740 yards and eight scores.
He had a pretty epic run from 2013 to 2018 though. I’ve already mentioned that legendary season with the Giants above, the year prior, his leading receiver while he OC’d the Vikings was Adam Thielen. Thielen caught 91 of 143 targets for 1276 yards and four scores. Shurm also had another receiver come close to 1000 yards in a quiet and unassuming Stefon Diggs, who caught 64 of 95 passes for 849 yards and eight scores.
Both of those WRs came close to 1000 yards in the 2016 season, which is where Shurm took over as the interim OC midway through the year.
His best stint by far, however, came with the Eagles in the early 2010s. He essentially had three straight seasons of a 1000-yard receiver (Jordan Mathews was three yards short in 2015). In 2014, it was Jeremy Maclin, who caught 85 of 143 passes for 1318 yards and 10 scores in 16 games. The 2013 season was Desean Jackson’s turn to pass the 1000-yard milestone, catching 82 of 126 targets for 1332 yards and nine scores in 16 games. In each of those seasons (2013-2014), the WR2 amassed over 800 yards.
Looking a little more closely at what Shurmer did with the Buffs once he started calling plays, Sean Lewis was demoted in early November. If I recall correctly, Shurm’s first game calling plays was Nov. 3rd vs. Oregon State. In that contest, Travis Hunter paced the Buffs with eight catches for 98 yards and a score. Weaver also caught five passes for 66 yards. Again, operating on memory here, I believe this game was a rainy and windy affair. The overall scoring suggests that might be the case, and Oregon State had a stingy defence this year.
The next game came against Arizona. Colorado lost 34-31, but all three of the starting WRs salvaged the day with good/solid stat lines. Both Hunter and Weaver reeled in five passes (74 and 84 yards, respectively), with Jimmy Horn scoring a TD on two catches.
The Buffs were dominated by Washington State the following week, so I’ll pass on recording those stats here. In the final game of the season vs. Utah, Travis Hunter had great game, catching eight passes for 107 yards and a score. It seems like Weaver was out this game, and there were no other notable WR stat lines.
So things were definitely better earlier in the year, but I’m not sure that that is due to the transition of Lewis to Shurmer as much as it is Colorado struggling overall in November. This was not a good team in 2023, but their out-of-conference schedule was quite favourable. Indeed, I’m sure we all remember when a lot of CFB casuals showered the Buffs with credit when they beat — the players who are now donning the same uniforms — of a TCU program that sent a team to the CFP in 2022.
Perhaps naively, I think as long as coach Prime is the CEO of this program, they’re going to continue to feed their guys on offence. That feels like a very Prime-thing to do. The good news is that the Buffs are moving on to the BIG12 conference, where — like the PAC12 — defence is usually optional. There should plenty more space to work with for Sheppard when he’s not playing the UGAs of the world every week.
Previous Write-Up on Will Sheppard (Spring of 2023)
I wrote about Sheppard in the 2023 offseason while he was still playing with Vanderbilt. Much of the analysis in that one no longer applies here, but as a reference, I have attached it below:
One thing that struck me when re-reading that article now is that all of the players I mentioned in it are no longer on Vandy’s roster. A sign of the times, I suppose.
Personally — if this point hasn’t been made clear yet — I love this move for Sheppard. There is uncertainty with the new-ish OC, yes, but overall I think it’s a good fit. He’s a good player (stating the obvious at this point, I know…), and he deserves the opportunity to fully showcase that in a way that he couldn’t at Vandy. As far as I know, the Commodores lined Sheppard up all over the place, but he primarily operated as a boundary pass catcher.
I would also imagine that he doesn’t make this move — given where he is in his career currently — without some assurances from Prime about his usage. That’s a dangerous game to play though as a CFF analyst, so I don’t want to rely too much on that in my projection.
Overall, I’m not sure where I’d put him as far draft range yet, I think I’d probably start considering him around the fifth round. With the understanding that there will be WRs galore that emerge via the waiver wire during the CFF season, I’d have absolutely no problem taking Shepp as my first WR in a draft.
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