Maneuvering through the rigors of parallel parking was the least of Will Shipley’s worries after the notification he received earlier that day in August.
When Shipley’s mother drove Will to his driver’s license test, his phone alerted him of a private message on Instagram. His longtime favorite running back, Carolina Panthers star Christian McCaffrey, wanted to introduce himself and wish him good luck on his upcoming high school football season.
“I was just sitting there like, ‘This can’t be true.’ I didn’t know what to do or what to think,” Shipley told the Tribune. “I can tell you that it definitely made my driver’s test about 10 times harder.”
Maybe McCaffrey felt inclined to reach out because he heard about the comparisons being made to his fellow North Carolina product. Shipley had emerged as the state’s top running back recruit in the 2021 class out of Matthews (N.C.) Weddington High.
Notre Dame running backs coach Lance Taylor may have the most credible opinion on this topic, and he agrees with the comparison. At least that’s what Taylor, McCaffrey’s former position coach at Stanford, indicated to Shipley. That’s why Shipley stands as one of the top recruiting targets for the Irish.
“Being able to have such a great relationship with someone who developed him, has been around him and can tell me even more about him, that’s obviously a huge advantage,” Shipley said. “Being able to pick his mind about a player that I’d love to be like one day.
“He’s someone I really look up to on the football field and off the football field. Coach Taylor is probably one of the best people to go to about him.”
Taylor coached McCaffrey for all three of his years at Stanford before joining him in the pros as the Panthers’ wide receivers coach. During that time the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Shipley modeled his game after McCaffrey, the NFL’s current leader in touches per game (25.9), rushing yards per game (110.1), scrimmage yards per game (155.5), rushing touchdowns (10) and scrimmage touchdowns (13).
The four-star Shipley remembers scouring McCaffrey’s film — from his high school Hudl to his Stanford games — on a weekly basis as a high school freshman. He looked to incorporate every minutia of detail into his game, including how McCaffrey trained in the weight room.
“It got to points where I wouldn’t go to bed until 12 or 1 a.m.,” Shipley said, “because I’d just be watching all the Christian McCaffrey videos on YouTube that I could find.”
Evidently that approach paid off for Shipley, who ranks as the No. 1 all-purpose back on both 247Sports and Rivals. 247Sports pegs Shipley as its No. 44 overall player in the 2021 class, while Rivals ranks him No. 53 overall. He’s landed scholarship offers from Clemson, Alabama, Stanford, N.C. State and others.
Shipley brings a similar all-around style as McCaffrey, rushing for 1,099 yards and 17 touchdowns on 103 carries and catching 21 passes for 376 yards and seven touchdowns through 10 games this season.
“His balance is really, really good,” said Weddington head coach Andy Capone. “He’s able to stay up and balanced. That’s one thing, and then obviously his physicality. He’s a really tough runner inside and outside. He’s a great pass-catcher out of the backfield. We line him up also in the slot. Vision, contact, balance and explosiveness.
“He makes a cut or breaks a tackle, and you will see him explode right there with no wasted movements. In the open field, he’s tough to catch.”
Taylor held a one-on-one meeting with Shipley during his recruiting visit for Notre Dame’s Oct. 12 home game against USC. He showed Shipley clips of McCaffrey, relating his style to how the Irish would utilize Shipley’s versatile skill set.
When Notre Dame’s second bye came the following week, Taylor visited Shipley’s high school. NCAA rules prohibit Taylor from visiting Weddington for a second time this season when he’s in town for Saturday’s game (7:30 p.m. EDT on ACC Network) at Duke (4-4).
So Taylor plans to swing by Weddington the first time the recruiting calendar permits him to again, in December. He will look to entice Shipley to visit South Bend for a second time in the spring.
“He knows a lot about where I’m from,” Shipley said. “That connection plays a huge role. It makes you feel more comfortable talking to someone, knowing that they know where you come from and what it’s like.
“My relationship with coach Taylor is a great relationship. I love speaking to him. The thing I love about it is it’s never only about football. That really goes out to who he is as a person and just how great our relationship really is.”
An offseason workout with McCaffrey is the dream for Shipley. Should Shipley trek to Notre Dame again in the spring, he may have Taylor to thank.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if coach Taylor mentioned my name to him or something like that,” Shipley said. “However it got through the grapevine, I’m very thankful that it did.”