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Wide receivers Leon Kinnard, Gerrard Sheppard team up again at Towson

Former high school rivals at Loyola, McDonogh played together at Connecticut before coming home

By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

5:50 PM EDT, August 28, 2012

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The 2011 college football season was a whirlwind for Towson wide receivers Leon Kinnard and Gerrard Sheppard.

From their decision to leave Connecticut within days of each other in late July and return home to Baltimore, to helping the Tigers go from worst-to-first in the Colonial Athletic Association, to catching touchdown passes in a season-ending 40-38 loss to Lehigh in the opening round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, neither Kinnard nor Sheppard had much time to breathe.

"It was tough having a bunch of guys who don't know the playbook," Towson coach Rob Ambrose said recently. "You could only fit them in so much. Whether they had great potential as players, you don't know where to go or how to go, so it doesn't really do you any good."

Kinnard and Sheppard decided to leave Connecticut a few months after Paul Pasqualoni had taken over for Randy Edsall in Storrs. Kinnard had initially thought about not going there in the first place, when the assistant coach who had recruited him left and the Loyola graduate was moved from quarterback to wide-out. By last summer, Kinnard had made up his mind to go to Towson.

"I had packed my stuff up and decided to transfer and got my release. I was on my way out of the suite and [Sheppard] was my suitemate for the summer," Kinnard recalled. "As I was leaving, I said, 'I'm going back home, I'm going to Towson.' He said, 'Really?' A couple of days later, he called me and told me he was about to join me."

Sheppard's decision to go to Towson had even more to do with Ambrose, who had recruited the former McDonogh standout when he was the offensive coordinator under Edsall at Connecticut and later when he became coach at his alma mater in 2008.

"When he first recruited me at UConn, we built such a tight relationship. Honestly, he was like a second father to me," Sheppard said.

Ambrose tried to help Kinnard's adjustment by using him early on at quarterback, the position he played for three years at Loyola . The 5-foot-10, 180-pound sophomore became quarterback Grant Enders' second-favorite target behind then-junior Tom Ryan, and was used on a couple of two-point conversions as a passer.

"It wasn't that difficult for me to learn the offense. The coaching staff does a great job of teaching the players and making it easy for us, so by the time Lehigh rolled around, I was very comfortable," said Kinnard, whose 36 catches and 402 yards ranked second behind Ryan's 39 receptions for 560 yards.

Sheppard's transition was a little slower. A year older than Kinnard — as well as four inches taller and 35 pounds heavier — Sheppard sat out the first week of practice at Towson while his paperwork was finalized and didn't make much of an impact until midway through the season against Old Dominion.

In a 39-35 road victory in which the Tigers erased an 11-point deficit in the last 3:13, Sheppard caught seven passes for 75 yards and made a crucial recovery on an onside kick that led to the winning touchdown — a 63-yard pass from Enders to Ryan.

"Mental reps and flying around are different things. But the gameplan and offense becomes second nature to you as the season goes on," said Sheppard, who finished third in receiving with 22 catches for 274 yards and two touchdowns.

But a glimpse of how Ambrose will use the former high school rivals this season came in the playoff defeat. With Lehigh packing the box in order to slow down freshman tailback Terrance West (Northwestern), as well as paying close attention to Ryan, Ambrose was forced to go more to his two transfers.

Kinnard finished with a team-high five receptions for 94 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown and a 66-yard reception to set up another score. Sheppard had a 52-yard touchdown catch to give the Tigers a lead with 1:28 left.

Kinnard expects much of the same defensive strategy geared to taking away West, who, after nearly being redshirted, won the Jerry Rice Award as the nation's top Football Championship Subdivision freshman after rushing for 1,294 yards and an FCS-best 29 touchdowns.

The Tigers open the season Thursday night at Kent State, only the fifth Football Bowl Championship opponent Towson has played. (The Tigers also play at LSU on Sept. 29.)

"We're going to take it game-by-game," Kinnard said. "I'm sure Kent State is going to pack the box based on what we did last year. We're going to be ready for any opportunity we have."

don.markus@baltsun.com

Towson at a glance

COACH: Rob Ambrose (4th season)

CONFERENCE: Colonial Athletic Association

LAST SEASON: 9-4

RADIO: TowsonTigers.com

STADIUM: Johnny Unitas Stadium

TICKETS: Call 1-855-TU-TIGER or log on to TowsonTigers.com. Season tickets available for $55

PARKING: Call 1-855-TU-TIGER

OFFENSE: Pro-I

DEFENSE: 3-4

OUTLOOK: Coming off a magical season in which the Tigers went from perennial doormats in the toughest league in the Football Championship Subdivision to surprising league champions, the expectations have been ratcheded up more than a few notches. Towson will play two Football Bowl Subdivision opponents in the same season for the first time, including a trip to Baton Rouge, La., to face LSU, the top-ranked team in USA Today's preseason coach's poll, on Sept. 29. But Ambrose, who was recognized for his success with a contract extension, returns 18 of the team's 22 starters, including FCS Freshman of the Year Terrance West (Northwestern) and All-CAA first team defensive end Frank Beltre. The key to Towson's continued rise on the national scene might be its offensive line, which lost only one starter (albeit All-CAA tackle Henry Glackin). If the line can be as good if not better than last season, it will give senior quarterback Grant Enders (Old Mill) a chance to make plays with his feet and a more-than-adequate arm. Not only are the Tigers experienced on both sides of the ball, they have plenty of depth, particularly at running back behind West (who is still listed as a backup to Dominique Booker) and wide receiver. Towson should be better defensively since three of the four starters in the secondary played as freshmen. What should also help at home is the fact that Johnny Unitas Stadium, which sold out for the first time in school history against Lehigh in the opening round of the playoffs, should be nearly filled from the start of the season if the Tigers keep winning.

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