Oklahoma’s Stills steps over negative pressure

NORMAN, Okla. — It’s hard to be Kenny Stills.

It is. And I understand.

A displaced California kid in football-mad Oklahoma. Sleeves of tattoos and a hair style that looks like “My Little Pony” with a “Club MTV” twist. Doesn’t exactly look like the rest of his classmates or teammates.

A 2011 DUI which resulted in a one-game suspension. Extreme verbosity of the 140 characters at a time variety, the topper coming when a picture surfaced this summer where Stills was posing in a purple dress.

Life’s not easy when you have a resume like that. And life’s not easy when folks want you to be the next Ryan Broyles.

It’s not easy being Kenny Stills.

And I understand.

“I’m not Ryan,” he said. “I’m Kenny. I’m going to continue to play my game and do my best.”

Ryan Broyles is gone – off to the NFL – having left Oklahoma as the most-prolific pass catcher in NCAA history. And somehow, in his place, whether he wants to be or not, is Stills.

Stills has 122 catches, plus the six he made Saturday against UTEP, for his career. He’s the only receiver on the current Oklahoma roster who caught a pass in 2011. And he was the only receiver Sooner fans singled out to save a season slipping away after Broyles went down with a season-ending knee injury which caused him to miss the last four games.

Stills had the chance to be the next Ryan Broyles while Broyles was still on the sidelines.

That makes it particularly hard to be Kenny Stills, because he wasn’t the next Ryan Broyles. Instead, Stills was largely absent, catching just one touchdown pass in the last four games of the season as the Sooners limped from an 8-1 start to a 10-3 finish.

“I definitely struggled,” Stills said. “I didn’t know what I was doing as much. I was trying to feel it out. It’s expected for me to match a guy like that. “

Moving positions from the outside to the slot. Increased expectations, going from the No. 2 receiver to being more than just Kenny Stills.

That’s hard to deal with, especially considering Stills had concussion-like symptoms, which kept him out of one game and seemed to linger throughout the season. He said he was “pretty much healthy” the second half of the year. He also said last year he wasn’t going to make the mistake of telling coaches he had a headache, either.

And so when the 2012 season opened, Stills got his mentions, but reviews were mixed, at best.

Coach Bob Stoops said this year’s group of receivers on campus was one of the best he’s had at OU, and all that coming despite the suspensions of Kameel Jackson, Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks. It was newcomer Trey Metoyer, not Stills, who impressed most in the spring game and created the most buzz in the summer.

Makes things even tougher to be Kenny Stills. Yet, the expectations are still there.

“I expect him to be the best receiver in college football,” said roommate and teammate Tony Jefferson.

First, Stills has to be the best at Oklahoma. Saturday, maybe for the first time, he was. Stills played his finest game since a two-touchdown performance against Texas last October. The result may have helped him emerge as something more than just a good receiver.

He might have become the go-to guy – something that has never been said about Stills, but often been considered, despite what Stoops said Monday after the game.

“I don’t believe in a go-to receiver as much as I believe in the schemes that we have,” Stoops said. “A go-to guy can always be taken away. You have to be able to go to someone else. It’s just the progression of routes. You want them to defend the whole field.”

But let’s go back before we move into the present. Maybe Stoops doesn’t want Stills to get ahead of himself. After all, Stills has locked down his Twitter account, shutting it off to the public. No more pictures. No more explaining himself through social media.

I get it. I do. The expectations at Oklahoma for the No. 1 receiver can be suffocating and Stills very well could have invited them, but likely didn’t know what to do once they swallowed him up.

Saturday against UTEP, he had six catches for 121 yards. He scored a touchdown on a play where QB Landry Jones scrambled and Stills stayed with him. “It was just a good play by Kenny,” Jones said of the 68-yarder, which was the longest touchdown catch of Stills’ career.

And Saturday, it wasn’t Metoyer. There was no Reynolds. Stills was the target Jones looked most comfortable throwing to.

Stoops might not have admitted it, but the rest of us saw it.

“As long as we win, I’m happy,” Stills said. “It’s cool to catch balls and score touchdowns, but if other guys are open, I understand that.” But he added this:

“I took a small step towards what I want to do and be. I want to do a lot more. Just catch the ball. Finish down the field. Be more explosive. I just want to put fear in their eyes.”

Just one game into 2012 might be too soon to say Stills has made an improvement, but from where he’s been, to where he is now, is a much larger step than even he admitted.

“I’m just trying to go out there and play,” he said.

And that’s something we’ve never heard from Stills before.