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Bainbridge native Sheppard overcomes odds at Arkansas

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- If not for a freak childhood eye injury, Bainbridge's Malcolm Sheppard's career would have been totally different.

Or so he says.

"I probably would have been a quarterback or a receiver or something," the Arkansas defensive lineman said. "No, I'm just playing."

The truth is, Sheppard's future didn't change much when he hurt himself in a gruesome bow-and-arrow accident at age 7. The 6-foot-2, 291-pound senior has done just fine on the football field, and as he prepares to move on after this season, he can look back at his Arkansas stint with pride.

"I've taken advantage of every game here. I'm not going to regret anything," Sheppard said. "I'm going to miss it. I look at it in a positive way. I served four good years here ... I met a lot of great people."

Sheppard's impact is remarkable considering he hardly uses his left eye. When he was young, he and his brother were horsing around with a bow and arrow when something went wrong.

"He shot one and I was in the wrong spot. It knocked me dead in the eye," Sheppard says matter-of-factly. "It plunged in. ... He actually pulled it out. He didn't try it on purpose. He was freaking out, but it's just one of those things."

Sheppard then added: "I was warned not to play with them. As a kid, you make those mistakes and you do things outside of what you're told."

Sheppard says he has blurred vision through the left eye, but he's adjusted to using the right one to see. There's an operation that could help his vision, but he's not going to opt for that just yet.

If you look at Sheppard's face, there's no sign that anything is wrong -- and that's even more true if you watch him play.

Sheppard has lined up at both end and tackle during his career. He appeared in all 14 games as a freshman in the 2006 season, then started 12 in 2007. After Bobby Petrino took over as coach for the 2008 season, Sheppard led the team in sacks and earned second-team All-Southeastern Conference honors.

Petrino says at first, he heard Sheppard only played on one side of the ball because of his eye.

"We kind of just changed that immediately and said, 'Let's flip him back and forth and see what he does,"' Petrino said. "You don't notice any of it."

The Arkansas defense has been shaky the last couple years, but Sheppard is a model of consistency. He has 10 tackles for loss this season.

"He really has worked hard this year at understanding more about how to play," Petrino said. "How to know more about offense so he can contribute more in the run defense as well as rushing the passer."

Arkansas became bowl eligible last weekend, but the Razorbacks (6-4) would like to improve their resume before the postseason. They face Mississippi State in Little Rock on Saturday.

Arkansas is allowing 25.5 points per game, one of the worst marks in the SEC. The Razorbacks have had to overcome some inexperience in the secondary, but when Sheppard and his linemen create pressure, they're a different team.

"They have a real solid defensive line," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said. "Their D-line really leads the way for them -- creates some pressure for them and is really good against the run."

It was Arkansas' defensive line that helped the Razorbacks keep it close in a 23-20 loss to Florida in October. The Hogs constantly pressured Tim Tebow and the Gators. Late in the game, Sheppard was called for a personal foul the SEC later said wasn't supported by video evidence. The officiating crew was suspended.

That might have been Sheppard's most newsworthy play of the year, but around the league he's known for much more.

"He's a pretty strong guy, a pretty stout guy," Mississippi State center J.C. Brignone said. "Their line as a whole is pretty good. ... It'll be kind of a test for me."

When the season ends, Sheppard will leave quite a void in Arkansas' defense -- one that will be hard for anyone to fill, even with two good eyes.

"I can see everything," Sheppard said. "I've been living with it for many years now. It doesn't affect me at all."