As one of the top offensive linemen in the state, Austin Shepherd is routinely complimented by college coaches, recruiting services and various media types.
For a high school senior, it would be easy to develop a big ego. Luckily, the North Gwinnett football player has a neighbor to keep him grounded.
"All the time. Every day. Every time I see him, something comes up," Shepherd said.
The neighbor is Morten Andersen. You might have heard of him. The former New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons kicker is the NFL's all-time leading scorer and shoo-in for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Shepherd family has lived next to Andersen on Lake Lanier for more than 10 years. Shepherd routinely hangs out with Andersen and has watched old tapes of the Dane kicker making a 60-yard field goal. But more importantly, Andersen gives advice about football to Shepherd.
"He tells me I need to keep a small head, don't get too big headed," Shepherd said. "He's says I'm not there yet. He knows, he's been in the league 25 years. He's always telling me just stay strong and do the right thing. He tells me something different every time.
"It's nice because I know he's right. I need to listen to him."
Andersen's level-headed advice has helped Shepherd get where he is today. As a sophomore, he started on North's state finals team and began to draw recruiting interest.
"He's big. Lets face it, he's big. I can't teach big," North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire said. "You got a guy that's that big as a sophomore and he's hungry, you're going to find a place for that cat to play."
He helped the Bulldogs to the quarterfinals of the playoffs last season, but with the departure of nearly every skill position player, Shepherd and the rest of the offensive line will be relied on heavily this season.
"There's definitely more pressure because we have to make better blocks and not mess up as much as we did last year," Shepherd said. "We have to be better than we have been."
It was just one day after National Signing Day in February that Shepherd picked up his first college scholarship offer from Alabama. He eventually got another offer from Alabama-Birmingham. Nearly a month later, he committed to the Crimson Tide.
"I went to a lot of places. I always wanted to play in the SEC, so I went to most of the SEC schools," Shepherd said. "When I visited Alabama for the first time, I fell in love with it. It felt like I was at home."
Shepherd starting playing football when he was 6 years old in the Gwinnett Football League. Football is in his blood. He knows the game, he loves the game and has always wanted to play at the next level. So when the offer from Alabama came, he jumped on it.
"Austin is a guy that will tear your head off if he gets a chance," Sphire said. "He's the kind of guy that is going to go to college and be that typical mean offensive lineman that's going to come out on Saturday ready to kick some tail."
Many schools were hesitant to offer Shepherd early in the recruiting process because of his weight. He played at about 330 pounds last season. He hired Keith Elmore, who also trains Andersen, as his personal trainer. He changed his diet, eliminating junk food and replacing it with chicken and broccoli.
With the new workout and diet, Shepherd has dropped 20 pounds and has become a more athletic lineman.
"I think I've seen a different player. A much more agile, athletic player that I saw his first two years starting here," Sphire said. "I could really tell this spring. I think it makes a huge difference."
Despite his humbling neighbor, Shepherd is a teenager and he still has a little swagger to him. After all, he his one of the top linemen in the state.
"I'm definitely going to be the best I've ever been and try and dominate every one I go against," he said.
SideBar: THE SHEPHERD FILE
Who: Austin Shepherd
School: North Gwinnett
Position: Offensive tackle
Size: 6-5, 315
College choice: Alabama
Other Division I-A offers: Alabama-Birmingham
· Bench presses 350 pounds, squats 450 and power cleans 320
· Will graduate from North Gwinnett in December and enroll at Alabama
· Three-year starter on the varsity
What was it like handling the recruiting process?: "It's alright for the first month or two, but it gets old after a while. I only got two offers from Alabama and UAB, but once I got that Alabama offer I knew I wanted to go there. I wanted to get it over with because I hated all of the letters and calls."
Coach Bob Sphire's comment: "Austin is more of a mauler. He's more of a cage match kind of guy. He's a guy that when he gets you down, he's going to let you know he's got you down kind of thing."