Allen Park — Detroit was the end of one journey for Kelvin Sheppard. Three years later, the eight-year NFL veteran is beginning his next as coach with the Lions.
By most measures, Sheppard had a solid NFL career. A third-round draft pick out of LSU in 2011, he appeared in 107 games for five teams, including 63 starts.
But by the time he reached Detroit, his opportunities and production were rapidly declining. A midseason addition in 2018, he appeared in seven games, but recorded just five of his 429 career tackles. Despite some interest heading into the 2019 season, he decided to hang it up.
Sheppard will tell you he was listening to his body, but he was also listening to his heart. He relished the time he got to spend with his children, playing the role of “soccer dad.” During that year off, he also dipped his toes into coaching, working with Optimist Club of Cooper City, a youth sports organization in southeast Florida.
“That’s where I first kind of fell in love with the coaching deal,” Sheppard said. “And anybody that’s done it knows the hardest guys to coach are them little rugrats out there, running around there, 8, 9 years old. If you’re able to get to them and you’re able to develop them and grow them, you can damn sure carry that on to the next level.”
In 2020, Sheppard was ready for the next level. He got offered and accepted a job at Vanderbilt, where former Lions special-teams assistant Devin Fitzsimmons was working. But when his alma mater, LSU, found out Sheppard would be going to work for another SEC school, they wouldn’t have it. They found him a multi-faceted role as the co-director of player development who also coached the team’s defensive ends.
A year later, Sheppard finds himself in Detroit, where he’s got several connections to the team beyond playing for the franchise three years ago. Obviously, several teammates remain from that stint, including linebacker Romeo Okwara, who Sheppard also played with in New York and will now directly coach. And Sheppard was also college teammates with defensive tackle Michael Brockers.
“That was my young pup at LSU,” Sheppard said.
But most importantly, Sheppard played for Dan Campbell during the coach’s interim run with the Miami Dolphins in 2015, which was coincidently Sheppard’s most productive season of his career. Playing in all 16 games, he racked up 105 tackles, including 13 behind the line of scrimmage. He never had more than three tackles for a loss any of his other seven seasons.
When Campbell got the job with the Lions, he, along with Chris Spielman and team president Rod Wood called Sheppard. What was supposed to be a short interview turned into a three-hour call.
A week later, it was another four-hour conversation, followed by a three-hour call with defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn that sealed the deal — Sheppard would coach Detroit’s outside linebackers, adding another passionate, respected former player to a coaching staff full of them.
“The respect factor is there from Day 1 because of the way I carried myself as a player,” Sheppard said. “I was always a team-first guy. I viewed myself as a leader. So even as a player, when I’m not in — and my family always joked with me, ‘You need to do your job and stop getting everybody else aligned’ — when I was on the field I took pride on knowing what all 11 guys were doing and throughout my career.
“I’ve helped an immense amount of coordinators with game plans,” Sheppard said. “I’ve helped an immense amount of teammates get lined up. Because all guys learn different and some guys learn faster than others. And I was kind of always that guy that picked guys up.”
Campbell has built a coaching staff loaded with potential future head coaches, led by Glenn and Duce Staley. Sheppard realizes he’s a long way off from being in that conversation, but doesn’t hide having similar aspirations.
“I’m attacking this thing one day at a time, one week at a time, one month, one year at a time, to be honest with you,” he said. “And right now, my aspiration is to have the best outside linebacker/defensive end group in the league. And for those guys to ascend and play at a high level, and that will be a direct reflection on myself.
“But, obviously — and I shared this with Dan, I don’t shy away from it — I absolutely aspire to be a head coach one day,” Sheppard continued. “And I know there’s many steps to that, and I don’t take that for granted.”
The starting point will be getting far more out of an edge-rushing group that’s had minimal success the past several seasons, outside of Okwara’s 10 sacks a year ago. The revamped scheme, under Glenn, is expected to significantly increase the pressure generated by the group Sheppard will lead.
“I love it,” Sheppard said. “I love it because we’re not allowing people to dictate to us. We run a dictatorship over here.”