Column: Nate Allen: Hogs' Sheppard not down on Nutt, but ready for Ole Miss players

Friday, October 24, 2008

FAYETTEVILLE -- Seldom if ever are coaches, particularly coaches of sports with 85 scholarships, unanimously beloved by their team.

So likely there are some Razorbacks going into Saturday's game with Ole Miss harboring feelings at least partially mirroring the bitter dislike many Arkansas fans express towards Houston Nutt.

However most current Razorbacks likely lean with junior defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard's feelings towards the Arkansas coach of the past 10 years now masterminding the Rebels coming to Fayetteville for Saturday's 6 p.m. SEC game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Sheppard never would have been a Razorback but for Nutt and Ole Miss' defensive line coach, former Arkansas D-line coach Tracy Rocker, and Ole Miss assistant Chris Vaughn, Arkansas' former recruiting coordinator. They recruited him out of Bainbridge, Ga. while most passed him by.

"Coach Nutt gave me a shot when nobody gave me a shot," Sheppard said. "Personally, one of the best men I know. Coach Tracy Rocker, Chris Vaughn, they gave me a shot when everybody else wouldn't. I'm grateful for them, and they're good men."

Yet Sheppard knows Arkansas antipathy abounds towards Houston Nutt.

How could he not given the tumultuous last years that even included airplanes circling stadiums home and road with banners critical of the head coach while radio talk shows and Internet boards crackled with debates between Nutt huggers and Nutt haters?

"The fans obviously didn't like Coach Nutt," Sheppard said. "You'll probably hear some boos and everything. As a player, I don't get caught up into that. That's entertainment, I guess."

Players play against players. They don't play against coaches.

"To play against him is going to be not that hard," Sheppard said, "because I'm not looking at it as if I'm playing against Coach Houston Nutt. I'm playing against Ole Miss."

It doesn't seem nearly so hard for these Razorbacks of first-year coach Bobby Petrino to separate their feelings about their old coach and the Ole Miss game as it is moving beyond the heartbreak of losing, 21-20 last Saturday night at Kentucky. Arkansas led 20-7 with under five minutes left.

"With three minutes left in the game," Sheppard said, "we are ready to prepare for a celebration in the locker room, and two minutes later we are behind. It was a devastating feeling for everybody."

For three quarters, including a first-half shutout, the defense excelled.

Then late in the fourth quarter as Petrino said, "the wheels came off," not only before their eyes but again and again in film review.

"The fourth quarter is tough film to watch," Sheppard said. "You always as a defensive lineman want to make that play that helps a linebacker. I personally felt we should have had more pressure on the quarterback, made them throw a bad pass or something."

Kentucky rose to the occasion, but it wasn't like Sheppard had been rising only occasionally. Sheppard made eight tackles against Kentucky, including two for losses with a quarterback sack, and forced a fumble.

Arkansas' old staff and new staff and the bridge between them, defensive line coach Bobby Allen who coached the Razorback secondary during Sheppard's previous two Razorback seasons, all agree on the quality junior's quality effort.

Sheppard has been giving his all as a tackle still with the 6-3, 277 defensive end dimensions for which he was recruited.

With Adrian Davis, Jake Bequette, Antwain Robinson and Demario Ambrose, The Hogs are quality deep on the defensive flanks that Sheppard played last year though he had played tackle, too.

For the team, Sheppard always plays where he's most needed even if it might not necessarily be where he's most suited.

"My goal is to get 290," Sheppard said of beefing up for tackle. 'It's been an adjustment. I thought my four years were going to get played at defensive end. When I got moved to defensive tackle, I thought it was just a temporary move. I didn't think it was going to be my position for the rest of my career. But I've learned to play it and I think I've gotten a lot better at it."

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