Will Shipley was on the phone with his mom prior to the start of his junior season at Weddington (N.C.) High School.
Whether it was a talk about picking him up some new SpongeBob or Nickelodeon coloring books – a favorite activity of the star prep running back who still considers himself very much a kid at heart – or if it was a request for her to buy more sausage and eggs for the nutrition-savvy teenager’s routine daily breakfast, it’s a conversation’s details he remembers little of. He was too busy being jaw-dropped by the name popping up on his Instagram direct messages.
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey.
The star of the team Shipley “faithfully follows,” and that plays its home games less than 25 miles from his school, was out of nowhere reaching out to tell Shipley, “‘I see what you’re doing. Continue to keep working. Stay humble and good luck this season,’” Shipley recalls. “It was very crazy. … I was in the middle of a conversation with my mom but was distracted and stopped talking. My mom was like, ‘are you all right?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ It was definitely surreal.”
“that actually might be one of the reasons he reached out. Maybe he heard about this little white running back from his state that he’s getting compared to."– Will Shipley on Christian McCaffrey
McCaffrey never clarified why he reached out, so Shipley can’t say with 100 percent certainty why an MVP candidate and arguably the league’s best all-around back would choose to message him. But there’s a pretty good chance he did so because of the obvious … the comparisons everyone in North Carolina and around the country seem to be making between Shipley and McCaffrey.
“We’ve never actually spoken about the comparison, but that actually might be one of the reasons he reached out,” Shipley said. “Maybe he heard about this little white running back from his state that he’s getting compared to. So yeah I think he probably watched some of my film – or somebody had asked him about me or something like that, and it just went on from there.”
The two exchanged numbers and now speak pretty frequently, Shipley typically texting him after a great game and McCaffrey telling Shipley “to remain humble and be thankful for all the opportunities and blessings you’ve gotten and always be the hardest worker wherever you go, and you’ll be successful,” Shipley says.
They have never met in-person, but that could change sometime in the near future. They have spoken about getting together after both of their seasons are over to get a workout in, either on the field or in the weight room.
“I would do both,” Shipley said. “I’d really just follow his lead and do whatever he wants.”
Whether McCaffrey knows it or not, Shipley has been following his lead for years. He watches film on him “religiously,” watching YouTube cutups of his workouts and his games dating all the way back to his high school career.
One of his favorite McCaffrey plays he’s watched too often to count is from the 2016 Rose Bowl against Iowa.
Less than 30 seconds into the second quarter, McCaffrey fields a punt near his own 40-yard line and utilizes every running attribute in his repertoire to make a host of Big Ten defenders look like JV players 63 yards to paydirt in a 45-16 rout of the Hawkeyes.
“He took the punt and made one of the best linebackers (Josey Jewell) in college football miss and then took it to the house 60 or 70 yards on a punt return,” Shipley said. “I absolutely loved watching that game against Iowa. I love watching him and trying to take some of his game and put it into mine.
“His angle route out of the backfield – it’s really just unfair for the linebackers and even safeties that they sometimes put down on him. It’s just unfair to a point where it’s almost like he’s gonna get a reception and a bunch of yards every single time.”
More useful, though, for Shipley to implement into his own game from McCaffrey goes beyond the big plays or any one particularly shocking highlight reel run. It’s more about the little things that all stack up into becoming a craftier, shiftier, smarter and – most important – consistently more effective all-around back.
“You can’t really look at a big run and be like, ‘Oh wow. I can take everything from that and integrate it into my game,’” Shipley said. “That’s not really how it works. It’s the runs in between the tackles where he kind of turns his body into half a man so the linebacker doesn’t get a clean hit on him. Or when he’s following his pulling guard and he sets it up left and breaks it off his left foot and gets to the second level. It’s just little things like that.”
He’s begun to make those incorporations into his own repertoire on the field, and he’s noticing the differences when he watches back on film. Those tweaks to model himself after McCaffrey are how Shipley has rattled off 30 touchdowns this season, 68 touchdowns in his three-year career, earned a nomination for North Carolina’s Gatorade Player of the Year and has led Weddington to a 12-0 record on a quest for a second consecutive state championship.
And if he keeps making those tweaks, he will continue drawing the McCaffrey parallel from now until he finishes his college career at Ohio State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Stanford or wherever else he chooses.
If he’s successful and developed himself enough, those comparisons won’t stop in college as he grinds for an NFL career, and those comparisons won’t stop at skin color or size for the two North Carolina backs. They’re also each gym rats.
Shipley is listed at 5-foot-11, 198 pounds and ranked as the state’s No. 2 prospect and the nation’s No. 1 all-purpose back; McCaffrey was 6-foot, 195 pounds and ranked his senior year as the No. 1 prospect in Colorado and No. 2 APB in 2014.
And just as McCaffrey has bulked up to 205 pounds of pure shred, don’t be surprised if Shipley one day looks similar to McCaffrey. He’s got the weight room work ethic locked down.
(Note: Shipley says he’s now up to 205 pounds and McCaffrey is listed at 5-foot-11 now, making each RB 5-foot-11, 205 pounds.)
Shipley came into his freshman year weighing 165 pounds. In one offseason, he gained 25 pounds, and over two years he’s gained 40 pounds. He never skips a day in the weight room and never loses an opportunity to get stronger for an on-field advantage. In fact, he gave us a snapshot of what a typical day and week looks like:
He’s usually at a college game Saturday and takes Sundays off to get his homework done (though, of course, he still sometimes will get a workout in at his house). Monday through Friday, he eats that sausage-and-eggs breakfast, eats at specific times of the day at school and takes down at least 1,000 calories at lunch, eating foods recommended by his nutritionist.
That’s right before he heads to his five-day-a-week weight training class for circuit training set up with three stations in the room, each with one main lift (incline, squad, hang clean, power clean, dead lift, etc.) and three auxiliary lifts (curls, bench press, leg lifts, abs, etc.). He and his classmates perform their sets for 90 seconds or so, then rotate, remaining at each of the three stations for about 15-20 minutes at a time.
Later, he gets about 15 minutes at the end of school to prepare for practice. And then, oh yeah, he goes and does that.
Overall, it can be an exhausting grind of a day. And he loves every bit of it – especially the circuit training.
“I wouldn’t say the weight room was one of my weaknesses to begin with,” Shipley says.
Well … that’s not totally true.
A freshman year chewing-out from then-head coach Tim Carson is to thank for Shipley’s initial buy-in to the weight room.
Then-assistant and current head coach Andy Capone put the Weddington players through a push-up exercise with weights in the players’ hands that Shipley says is “known school-wide and weight room-wide as the (hardest) lift in the weight room. Nobody likes to do it.”
So Shipley didn’t do it. Or, at least not all the reps he should have. He got caught by an assistant and got an earful the next day.
“Coach Carson came up to me when I was in lunch and said he needed to talk to me,” Shipley said. “I almost pooped my pants when he said that. I get to his office, and he’s like, ‘Why are you skipping reps?’ He sat me down and explained to me and told me the weight room’s gonna be my best friend, and it turned out to be so.
“After that, I just promised myself – I devoted myself – that I was never gonna skip another rep. If anything, I was gonna do extra reps. I just continuously saw growth in my body and in my on-field play. Ever since then, I’ve always thanked the weight room and continued to put work into it and get output from it. After I put in more work in the weight room, I started becoming a little bit more successful.”
And more noticeable … even by the NFL’s best.