Orchard Park, NY -- It wasn't long after the Buffalo Bills announced a switch from a 3-4 based defense to a 4-3 that second-year linebacker Kelvin Sheppard was pegged as the man in the middle by head coach Chan Gailey
In fact, it took merely minutes in to Gailey's press conference at the end of January.
"I know Shep's going to be in the middle," he said. "Shep's in the middle I know that, so after that don't hold me to anything."
From that day forward, Sheppard has been entrusted with being one of the key pieces to defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt's scheme. A scheme that has produced many solid middle linebackers in his days with the Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins.
It's a role that both Sheppard and Wannstedt are excited about for the former third-round pick, and one that the defensive coach thinks the linebacker can flourish in.
"You talk about players and how quickly you expect them to develop, he’s one that I really expect to benefit from the offseason program, the minicamps, training camps," Wannstedt remarked. "And this is a defensive scheme where our middle linebacker should make a lot of tackles and you’ve got to have a guy that’s capable of it and he is."
One week in to Organized Team Activities at One Bills Drive, Sheppard took the high praise from his coaches as a driving force for his second campaign.
"I was like, 'I gotta work even harder then I'm already working because I can't let my coaches down,'" he started. "I'm just trying every day, trying to get better."
Spending the final 10 games of the 2011 season as a 3-4 inside linebacker next to Nick Barnett, Wannstedt believes Sheppard is now in his natural position.
"I think physically he’s a 4-3 middle linebacker," the defensive coordinator said. "He’s not a 4.5 (40-yard dash) guy that’s going to play on the edge but he is a ‘backer that can play inside from tight end to tight end.
"He’s athletic enough to cover tight ends and backs, and I think last year you’ve got to go back -- we didn’t have OTAs, we didn’t have any of the camps. And then he shows up at training camp and he’s about 20 pounds overweight and he pulls his hamstring the first day or two. So he had no preseason games and then he started playing halfway through the season."
Playing last season anywhere from 250 to 255 pounds, Sheppard prepared himself for his new role with the Bills in a way that could help improve his speed and reduce the risk of that similar injury.
"Getting my weight down a little bit, so I can be a little bit quicker and faster," the linebacker replied. "In the 3-4 you can bulk up, be more of a stop the run inside force. In the 4-3 Mike, you have to be able to run sideline to sideline a lot more."
Sheppard said he's down to 240 pounds, something that made Wannstedt a happy man.
"He showed up in great shape and his attitude is good and I think he’s excited about this scheme."
Playing in the 4-3 virtually his entire career -- with the exception of last season-- the linebacker has known of Wannstedt and his reputation for getting great play from his middle linebackers.
During the off-season, many people would remind Sheppard of the name Zach Thomas. Of course Thomas was the most recent notable middle linebacker in Wannstedt's scheme, being one of the NFL's best at his position while the two were paired in Miami.
Although Sheppard has said Thomas was a great player, he's aiming to duplicate it through his own success with his skill set with Wannstedt as his coach.
"I could never be Zach Thomas, I don't want to be Zach Thomas. But I will look at Zach Thomas tape and see what he did and what he was able to do in that same defense," he said. "You take that and you try to transfer it to my own game and try to create a name for myself."
A team-first player, Sheppard admitted the ultimate goal is to do whatever he needs to do to help the Buffalo Bills get to the Super Bowl.
Luckily for him, the two can go hand-in-hand. In order for the Bills to regain their glory of years past, a much improved defense is critical to their claims. They'll certainly need their middle linebacker to help hold opposing offenses at bay.
Sheppard and the Bills resume work at OTA's on Tuesday in Orchard Park.