We’ve had quite a few of those same scenarios with walk-ons happen. There’s still a place for a walk-on to come in and bust his butt and make a name for himself and Clint’s doing just that. —Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, on Clint Shepard
SALT LAKE CITY — Over the years, the Utah football team has made a habit of collecting walk-on players, mostly from the Beehive State, and watching them work their way up the depth chart, often to starting positions.
Guys such as John Madsen, Steve Tate, Mike Wright and Christian Cox were local players who earned scholarships after walking on to the team, and each became a productive starter.
Since the Utes joined the Pac-12, the general assumption is that it’s nearly impossible for walk-ons to join the program and work their way past the highly recruited athletes that now dot the Ute roster.
Yet one such player has defied the odds and is a likely starter for the Utes’ opening game against Idaho State next week.
That player is defensive tackle Clint Shepard.
“We’ve had quite a few of those same scenarios with walk-ons happen,’’ said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “There’s still a place for a walk-on to come in and bust his butt and make a name for himself and Clint’s doing just that.’’
If you’ve never heard of Shepard, you’re not alone. He didn’t make the Deseret News All-State Team as a 210-pound linebacker at Copper Hills in 2008 — not even honorable mention — and with no four-year college offers, he went down to play for Snow College for a year. Then he went on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to New Zealand, where he packed some pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame.
“The whole time I was with the Tongan people and they know how to eat better than anyone,’’ Shepard said with a laugh.
After his mission, Shepard was all set to go to Utah State in August 2012 when he had a sudden change of heart.
“I was supposed to go up to Utah State, but about a week before I was going to go, I had a feeling that I should talk to the coaches here and they said, ‘Yeah we’ll take you,'" he said.
Shepard redshirted in 2012 and sat out last year with an injury. This past spring, he got his opportunity to impress the coaches when three of Utah’s top defensive linemen — Viliseni Fauonuku, Sese Ianu and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu — all sat out with injuries.
“I was given some opportunities and I ran first-team in the spring,’’ Shepard said. “But I was just 245 back then.’’
Shepard was also a defensive end in the spring, but after bulking up 30 pounds over the summer, Ute coaches moved him to defensive tackle.
“At first I really didn’t want to move to inside, but now that I’ve moved there, I love it,’’ he said. “I wouldn’t want to go back.’’
Whittingham says even though Shepard is still smaller that the other defensive tackles on the Ute team, he makes up for it in other ways.
“He does everything right from a fundamental standpoint and his technique is excellent,’’ he said. “He’s quick and he has a good ability to stay square. On the defensive line you have to use your hands and stay square — those are the two most critical things and he does both of those very well.’’
Shepard credits defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki with helping him and his fellow linemen improve this year.
“Coach T has helped to round my game out,’’ Shepard said. “For me, I was really explosive getting off the ball, but he’s helped round my game out with getting better hands. The other players that had good hands and were maybe slower, Coach T has helped to get them quicker off the ball. So he’s helping to develop more all-around athletic D-linemen.’’
Tuiaki praises Shepard, saying, “Clint’s been doing a good job. He’s strong, he’s explosive, he’s bought in to the program. Pound for pound, he’s the strongest kid in the group. He’s still small as a D-tackle, but he’s real explosive and that makes up for size.’’
After not being on the two-deep heading into fall camp, Shepard has been battling senior Sese Ianu and freshman Lowell Lotulelei for the starting spot all August. Tuiaki said all may see action this fall, with the starter getting about 60 percent of the reps. While Tuiaki didn’t want to commit to a starter yet, Whittingham said Shepard, who was awarded a scholarship two weeks ago, would be the starter right now along with Fauonuku at the tackle positions.
Regardless of who ends up starting and getting the most minutes on the Ute defensive line this year, Shepard is confident he and his mates will get the job done.
“The one thing I like is that each player has a specialty,’’ Shepard said. “The D-line will be great this year.’’