NORMAN, Okla. – There was a time when wide receiver Kenny Stills had to answer all the questions on the field and answer for all the questions for everything off the field.
Couldn’t have been easy, either.
Stills was expected to do big things, and the receiving group was thought to be one of the best in the country. Couple with the return of fifth-year senior quarterback Landry Jones, the passing game was supposed to be the strength of the offense.
But after coach Bob Stoops suspended receivers Jaz Reynolds, Trey Franks and Kameel Jackson, Stills suddenly was the only receiver on the roster with a single collegiate catch.
In addition, receiver Trey Metoyer — praised in the spring — isn’t getting much of a whisper now, and highly touted Courtney Gardner never made it to campus.
So how did their biggest problem become their biggest strength as the Sooners wrap up the regular season Saturday against TCU?
“These receivers we’ve got have been awesome,” coach Bob Stoops said. “They’ve been consistent. They’ve been a really great group, unselfish, working together. Even the young guys have come in and done a great job.”
Good is one way to put it; surprising is another.
With a combination of Stills and two transfers, the receiving corps is doing exactly what most thought it could – albeit with a whole different group of people.
“They’ve gotten better,” said co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel. “Landry has gotten more comfortable. Those guys have matured in a really good way. The new guys have adjusted.”
You could say that. Transfers Justin Brown (Penn State) and Jalen Saunders (Fresno State) – neither of whom went through spring practice – have become OU’s most dependable players as well as punt returners.
Brown tied a school record with 15 catches last week in a win against Oklahoma State. He also has a punt return for a touchdown and 62 catches on the season.
Saunders missed the first four games of the season, waiting for his transfer to clear through the NCAA. Since then, he has 46 catches and is averaging 94 receiving yards per game. He had 10 catches last week for 162 yards and a score against OSU, as well as an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown, the first punt return score of his career.
And then there’s Stills. The junior leads the team with 876 yards receiving, 11 touchdowns and 73 catches. He had four touchdown catches against West Virginia.
A new group, but certainly improved, too. For the first time in school history, the Sooners had three receivers (Saunders, Brown, Stills) go for 100 or more receiving yards against Oklahoma State.
“Once we got Justin and Jalen in there, I thought we were capable of something like this,” Stills said. “When Jaz got suspended and things happened the way they did, I obviously didn’t think that at the time.”
No one did, and maybe because of it, Jones got off to a slow start. But as the receivers have gotten more comfortable, Jones seems to have joined them.
“You lose a game and people think you can’t coach, can’t throw, can’t block, you can’t catch,” Jones said. “We went back to work. All that paid off for us. I don’t know if we drastically changed anything. I think the hard work and determination we put into this offense has really started to pay off.”
The result has been more than 1,000 yards of passing offense the past two weeks in a road win over West Virginia and a rally past Oklahoma State in Norman.
And an offense that struggled early against UTEP and Kansas State seems to be working pretty well now, bailing out an OU defense that played well the first half of the season, but hasn’t been great lately.
“There was some learning curve,” Stoops said of the receivers. “I think Justin has played almost more than anyone here and Jalen had played a lot, so they know what it takes to play in a game.”
Brown will be gone next year, but everyone else returns, including freshman Sterling Shepard – who has 38 catches this season – and Metoyer, who should be much improved.
And once again, the Sooners will head into a season in which the receivers are expected to be the strength of the team.