Oklahoma Sooners: Justin Brown

It was a short gain, a simple catch in his third collegiate game.

Yet, Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard sent a message in the span of five seconds.

[+] EnlargeSterling Shepard and Jackson Jeffcoat
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSterling Shepard is stepping into more of a leadership role for the Sooners.
The Sooners standout caught the pass on an out route then vaulted over Kansas State’s Nigel Malone, leaving the Wildcats cornerback grasping at air while displaying some eye-popping athleticism. With the 11-yard gain Shepard removed all doubts about his ability to be a playmaker in crimson and cream.

Shepard went on to catch 96 passes for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns during his first two seasons. He proved to be one of the Big 12’s top clutch receivers with his 26 receptions for 415 yards on third down ranking among the conference’s best.

This season, Shepard’s role changes. The junior is the centerpiece of OU’s receiving corps for the first time with all eyes on him to be the go-to guy for sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight.

Teammates know they can count on the Oklahoma City native to make plays, but they’ve lauded his increasing leadership role as well.

“Sterling has done a great job being a vocal leader with the wideouts,” Knight said.

This spring, coach Bob Stoops immediately pointed to Shepard as one of the players who could fill the leadership void left by a quality senior class which included center Gabe Ikard and fullback Trey Millard, both four-year starters.

“He’s really emerged as a strong leader for us on offense,” Stoops said. “He’s consistent. He’s had a great winter in the way he has worked. He’s pushing other guys. He’s going to be a guy that we have to focus on and find different ways to keep getting him the ball more, which is obvious to everyone. He’s been great.”

Receivers coach Jay Norvell is challenging Shepard to become an even better player as he becomes a veteran and leader, not just for the offense but the entire team.

“I’ve told Shep that his world his different now,” Norvell said. “He’s not the young guy. He’s played a lot of football around here and he knows what it takes to win big games. He’s got to make players around him better.”

Setting an example with his effort, consistent production and forcing Big 12 coordinators to focus their game plans on him are among the ways Shepard can make his teammates better.

And the 5-foot-10, 193-pound pass catcher could find even more ways to impact games during his third season with the Sooners. He’s in line to return punts for OU after watching Jalen Saunders and Justin Brown excel as punt returners during his freshman and sophomore seasons.

“He’s been catching [punts] the last couple of years,” Stoops said. “We’ve just had the good fortune of having two experienced guys in Justin Brown and Jalen Saunders. They both had a year of doing it. Both were so good at it that Sterling hasn’t had to, but he’s caught balls for two years. He’ll be ready for it. He’s strong and can run balls, so he’ll be comfortable with it.”
When quarterback Landry Jones was selected on the final day of the 2013 NFL draft, Trent Dilfer pulled no punches when it came to the Sooners' offense.

Among other things, the ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback called Oklahoma’s offense “a joke” and its receivers “brutal.”

[+] EnlargeLandry Jones
AP Photo/Alonzo AdamsFormer Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones put up huge numbers in the Sooners' offense.
In a phone interview with SoonerNation, Dilfer stood by his sharp comments.

“I was talking in the context of developing a quarterback to be ready to play at next level -- and it was very hard for me to stomach,” Dilfer said. “That’s the context. The context of quarterback development, the context of a draftable quarterback and an evaluation of him. You can’t evaluate a quarterback without an understanding of what he’s asked he to do, and how that’s going to allow him to flourish or somewhat stunt his development.

“As I studied Landry Jones’ 2012 film, it was constant frustration with him being asked to do something that’s not realistic. It wasn’t conducive to quarterback development.”

While Dilfer was focused on evaluating Jones, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers, he also pointed out Oklahoma’s offense wasn’t conducive to scoring against tougher defenses, either.

“They can do whatever they want to do. I have no right to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do. Bob Stoops makes a lot of money, he’s won a lot of games. However they justify it being successful, go for it,” Dilfer said. “I stand by what I said. And if the answer is, ‘We don’t care, we’re trying to score points, and we think that’s the best way to do it,’ keep doing it. But in games against good defenses, that formula did not work.”

Dilfer has a point.

With Jones at the helm last season, Oklahoma ranked 15th nationally in points and 12th in yards on the way to a 10-win season. But the Sooners sputtered offensively when facing the better defenses on their schedule. Against Kansas State, Notre Dame, TCU and Texas A&M, Oklahoma averaged just 17 points -- three touchdowns less than its season average.

“That’s all that matters. All that matters is how you play against good teams,” Dilfer said. “The same thing showed up against the poorer defenses, but you get away with it against those defenses.

“If they think it’s the best way of playing, they get to choose that. I’m simply coming from a quarterback developmental context. People get so sensitive when their paradigm is challenged. What were they, 10-2? 10-3 with the bowl game? That’s a really good record. A lot of teams wished they had that record. And I understand that. My job is to thoroughly evaluate the quarterbacks at every level. And I know you can’t possibly do it if they’re not asking them to do to things that translate to the next level of where they’re trying to get to.”

While evaluating Jones, Dilfer said three things stood out that he believes stemmed Jones’ growth: the lack of tight ends in the Oklahoma offense, the use of the “Belldozer” package in the red zone, and the Sooners’ skill players, whom Dilfer termed “incredibly undisciplined.”

“From a talent standpoint, they’re talented kids,” Dilfer said of the Oklahoma receivers. “The word I would use is 'unorganized.' They lacked the crispness, the discipline, the precision it takes to trust where they’re going to be and when a quarterback can cut it loose.”

The Sooners did have two receivers taken in last week’s draft in Kenny Stills and Justin Brown, who combined for 155 receptions and more than 1,800 yards last season. Fresno State transfer Jalen Saunders also had a big year statistically with 62 catches and 829 yards receiving.

Dilfer, however, said those numbers masked several flaws.

“Statistics, that’s what we reduce everything to; because they put a lot of yards up and are productive, that they’re good,” Dilfer countered. “I talked to a couple of NFL personnel guys that I really trust to see if I was missing something with (Oklahoma’s) receivers, and they said, 'No.' "

Jones was also hurt, Dilfer said, by not having a tight end to work with.

“When you don’t have the presence of an inline tight end, your quarterback is not being developed,” Dilfer said. “Thirty-five percent of how NFL football is played is tight end-centric. Whether it’s working the middle of field, whether it’s play-action. You’re just not learning a type of football from a quarterback’s perspective that’s transferrable to the NFL.”

Dilfer believes Jones didn’t properly develop his skills in the red zone, either, a critical part of NFL quarterbacking.

“That was the biggest thing that me drove nuts, taking him out inside the 20-yard line,” Dilfer said. “Landry does all the work to get you to the 20, then you take him out -- you never develop the red-zone passing game. I can’t tolerate that. When you do that in the red zone to a quarterback, there are so many other things that you are limiting because you’re not developing your quarterback in the red zone.”

“In the red zone, everyone knows (the Belldozer package) is coming. It works against the bad teams. Against the good teams, they load up and blow it up.

“All that lowers the quarterback development to the lowest denominator. It’s really a glorified version of 7-on-7.”

Ultimately, Dilfer said, that negatively impacted where Jones went in the draft.

“If Landry had played at USC he would have been a first-round pick,” Dilfer said. “I know Matt Barkley was a fourth-round pick, that’s not what I’m saying. You develop a quarterback in college by running multi-dimensions of offense. That’s what you have to do in the NFL. When you have a pure passer in Landry who can move around for a big man, is smart, is tough, you have to give him all the dimensions in which to operate. What he did at Oklahoma was operate in just a few dimensions to the point you couldn’t really evaluate or project what he’d be in the NFL. You didn’t get to see him do it. That really hurt his stock.

“What I saw with Landry is now an NFL coach is going to have to teach him stuff, develop stuff, that should have been developed his junior-senior years.”

OU officials declined to comment.

Oklahoma Sooners spring wrap

May, 1, 2013

2012 record: 10-3

2012 conference record: 8-1 (tied for first, Big 12)

Returning starters: Offense: 7; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

RB Damien Williams, FB Trey Millard, WR Jalen Saunders, WR Sterling Shepard, C Gabe Ikard, DE/DT Chuka Ndulue, LB Corey Nelson, CB Aaron Colvin

Key losses

QB Landry Jones, WR Justin Brown, WR Kenny Stills, OT Lane Johnson, DE David King, CB Demontre Hurst, FS Tony Jefferson, SS Javon Harris

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Damien Williams* (946 yards)
Passing: Landry Jones (4,267yards)
Receiving: Kenny Stills (959 yards)
Tackles: Tony Jefferson (119)
Sacks: Chuka Ndulue* (5)
Interceptions: Javon Harris (6)

Spring answers

1. Playmakers abound: The Sooners might have lost leading receivers Kenny Stills and Justin Brown, but there’s plenty of firepower back to support whoever wins the starting quarterback job. Jalen Saunders was actually Oklahoma’s most efficient receiver the second half of last season and seems primed to take over as the go-to target. The Sooners also have several talented up-and-coming receivers who had good springs, led by slot extraordinaire Sterling Shepard. The backfield is even deeper, with leading rushers Damien Williams and Brennan Clay back, to go along with Trey Millard, one of the top all-around fullbacks in the country.

2. Cortez will flank Colvin: The secondary was decimated by graduation and Tony Jefferson’s early entry into the NFL draft. One of those voids was cornerback, where Demontre Hurst had started the previous years. That void at least, however, appears to have been filled. Arizona transfer Cortez Johnson seized the job from the first day of spring drills, and has given the Sooners every indication to believe they’ll have a big, physical corner to pair with All-American candidate Aaron Colvin in the fall.

3. The linebackers will play: In a desperate move to slow down the high-powered passing attacks of the Big 12, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops pulled his linebackers off the field. The plan backfired, as opposing offenses ran at will over the linebacker-less Sooners. This spring, Stoops has renewed his commitment to the linebacker, which, ironically, could be the strength of the defense. Corey Nelson, Frank Shannon and Aaron Franklin are all athletic and capable of generating negative plays, something Oklahoma’s defense sorely lacked last season.

Fall questions

1. Who the QB will be in October: Bob Stoops said he would wait until the fall before naming a starter, and so far, he’s made good on his word. Junior Blake Bell took a lead in the competition during the spring, as expected. But sophomore Kendal Thompson and redshirt freshman Trevor Knight, who both got equal reps as Bell, played well at times, too. It’s hard to see Bell not starting the first game. But if he struggles against a tough September schedule, it’s not unthinkable one of the younger QBs would be given a shot.

2. How the new offense will fare: Looking to utilize the skill sets of their mobile quarterbacks, the Sooners will be running a very different offense from the one Sam Bradford and Landry Jones both operated. Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel kept most of these new plays - including loads of read option -- in his hip pocket during the spring game. But it will be interesting to see how the Sooners -- and just as important, opposing defenses -- adjust to this new era of offense in Norman.

3. Defensive line play: The Sooners went into spring ball with just three defensive tackles on the roster, and little experience at defensive end. The unit showed strides during the spring, with Chuka Ndulue making a smooth transition from end to tackle, and tackle Jordan Phillips coming up big in the spring game. But that was the spring. The defensive line will have to continue to grow rapidly in the fall for the Sooners to have any hope of improving from last year defensively.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Safety Ahmad Thomas and receiver Dannon Cavil recognized an opportunity at Oklahoma. With wideout Kenny Stills and safety Tony Jefferson declaring for the 2013 NFL draft following their junior seasons, a starting spot and playing time opened up for the Sooners at both positions.

The lone freshman early enrollees who have fully participated in spring football, Cavil and Thomas are already making an impression on their teammates and coaches. It started with their smooth transition into the program during winter workouts.

[+] EnlargeDannon Cavil
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comFormer ESPN 300 wideout Dannon Cavil could play immediately for the Sooners this season.
“He's handled the workouts,” head coach Bob Stoops said of Cavil shortly before spring football began. “That's when you can really tell if a guy is ready for it, and he's gone through all the workouts like he's a junior.”

Thomas was the same way.

“He handled winter workouts like someone who’s been around for a couple of years,” nickelback Julian Wilson said. “He didn’t handle them like a freshman.”

The duo continued to impress this spring by displaying playmaking ability that could earn them on role on the Sooners’ offense and defense this fall. Thomas is a hard hitter who is displaying terrific instincts at safety. The departures of Jefferson and Javon Harris, OU’s starters last season, leaves a hole in the secondary and Thomas is making a case to slide into that gap.

“I’ve never seen a freshman like him,” cornerback Cortez Johnson said. “He’ll play a big part in our defense, most likely this year.”

Senior safety Gabe Lynn is taking on a mentoring role with Thomas but has already noticed his natural ability. Thomas' instincts have impressed along with his hunger to learn.

“He has good instincts,” Lynn said. “You really can’t tell he just came in, it fits right in. Ahmad wants to learn more so it’s very easy to help him, he’s asking questions all the time.”

(Read full post)

NORMAN, Okla. -- After a freshman season that did not go as planned, Oklahoma receiver Durron Neal appears poised to make an impact during his second year on campus. With Kenny Stills and Justin Brown moving on to the NFL, Neal is in the middle of a competition to replace the Sooners' starting outside receiver duo.

[+] EnlargeDurron Neal
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY SportsOklahoma receiver Durron Neal had five catches as a freshman but will likely see more playing time in 2013.
“I’m very excited,” Neal said. “I’m up to the challenge. It’s one of the reasons I came here. My coaches believe in me, my teammates believe in me and I’m ready to step up and not let them down.”

At one point last summer it appeared the Sooners would lean on Neal to make an immediate impact as a freshman. Then Brown joined the program in August after transferring from Penn State and Jalen Saunders became eligible after four games of the 2012 season following his transfer from Fresno State, allowing Stills to move back outside after spending the first month of the season at slot receiver.

Suddenly OU had two veteran receivers on the outside and Neal was left to watch and learn despite playing himself out of a redshirt season with a strong preseason camp. Neal and the Sooners are hoping his learning experience will pay off during his sophomore season.

“Every day last year I took in all I could,” Neal said. “I came in and was ready to learn. I knew I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. Coming in, I really used Kenny as a resource because I knew that’s who I’d be backing up.”

Even though he saw limited action, Neal flashed some playmaking ability.

“When Durron was in games he did a great job,” OU coach Bob Stoops said. “He's a big play type guy, and strong.”

(Read full post)

Big shoes to fill: Oklahoma Sooners

February, 28, 2013
We're moving on with a new series today looking at the players across the Big 12 who have to replace program legends. We might as well call this the Nick Florence Memorial team, but let's talk Oklahoma Sooners.

Big shoes to fill: Oklahoma's receivers

If you want to know more about Oklahoma's quarterback spot and the big shoes to fill there, you can do that with the guys at SoonerNation. There's no reason to rehash the race to replace Landry Jones, but we'll look at the guys who Jones' heir will be throwing to today. Kenny Stills left early and Justin Brown had a solid performance in his one year as a Sooner after transferring from Penn State. Together, Oklahoma's got to replace their top two receivers who accounted for 155 catches, 1,843 yards and 16 touchdowns. That's no small task, but the Sooners have a lot of guys in place to make it happen.

Fresno State transfer Jalen Saunders is at the top of that list after showing big potential in the second half of the season last year once he was ruled eligible. He had three games with at least nine catches (including 15 for 181 yards against Notre Dame) and topped 100 yards receiving in the Sooners' last three regular season games. He's well-suited to be the unit's best player next season, but look out for young guys, too. Oklahoma brought in an unbelievable haul of receivers in the 2012 recruiting class, and it may start paying off now. Sterling Shepard had a strong 2012 season with 45 grabs for 621 yards, but Durron Neal and Trey Metoyer should embrace bigger roles this season with a new quarterback.

The Sooners have had a strong receiving tradition for quite some time now with guys like Stills, Ryan Broyles, Juaquin Iglesias, Manny Johnson and Malcolm Kelly, and they look well suited to continue that tradition in 2013.

More big shoes to fill:

Position breakdown: Wide receiver 

February, 15, 2013
NORMAN, Okla. -- Outside of Ryan Broyles, receiver has been an up-and-down position for the Sooners in recent seasons.

In 2012, however, Oklahoma was formidable at the position. So formidable, in fact, that OU went almost exclusively with a four-wide receiver set the second half of the season.

Half of that foursome is now gone, with Justin Brown graduating and Kenny Stills leaving early to enter the NFL draft. But enough pieces remain for the Sooners to be strong at wideout again.

Coaches' corner: WR Dannon Cavil

February, 14, 2013
After recruiting them for several months, Oklahoma's coaching staff was finally able to talk publicly about the players the Sooners added to the program on signing day. Over the next week or so, SoonerNation will review some of the key things coaches had to say about the players signed at each position group during their signing day webcast on Soonersports.com.

[+] EnlargeDannon Cavil
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comESPN 300 receiver Dannon Cavil signed with the Sooners after being committed to both Ole Miss and Cal at different points in 2012.
Oklahoma offered Dannon Cavil (San Antonio/Madison) late in the recruiting process but it was just in time to land the receiver and get him on campus for spring football. The late addition could be the most physically impressive of the Sooners receivers signees at 6-foot-5, 205 pounds.

“He’s a great player who is already in our program," offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. "He’s a really mature kid, he approaches things the right way, he’s bright, he’s disciplined, focused, he wants to be a great player. Trevor Knight has talked about how far along he is for a guy coming in mid-year. We feel like we got a steal with him.”

As an early enrollee, Cavil is already working out with the Sooners and participated in testing in various drills and events, impressing the coaching staff.

“We already put our players through testing and he was probably in the top three of our receivers," running backs coach Cale Gundy said. "And here he is supposed to still be in high school. Great 40-yard dash, explosive in the broad and long jump.”

An hamstring injury hampered Cavil during his junior season, resulting in limited game film for the Sooners coaches to evaluate. After a strong -- and healthy -- senior season, Norvell evaluated Cavil and was confident he could help the Sooners.

"He did not play as a junior, didn’t have the film," Norvell said. "We’ve been trying to add size to our receivers. He’s a tremendous athlete for a big kid. How athletic he is and smooth he is is very rare for a kid his size. He’s a guy we absolutely love."

Departing senior Justin Brown showed the Sooners the value of a big physical receiver on the outside who can use his body and ball skills to create plays on third downs and in the red zone. Cavil fits that mold and could be even faster than Brown providing a better deep threat along with his unique size.
Not only did the Sooners seldom use the tight end position in 2012, they altogether abandoned it. Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel leaned on four-wide sets and lined up fullback Trey Millard at tight end whenever the situation called for it.

[+] EnlargeBrannon Green
Jim Cowsert/US PresswireTight end Brannon Green had three catches for the Sooners in 2012.
The Sooners scoured the recruiting trail for a junior college tight end but struck out with their top two targets, Beau Sandland and Emmanuel Bibbs.

Despite not landing a juco tight end, Bob Stoops said he wants the tight end packages to be a bigger part of the offense next season. And he feels that, with an extra year in the program, freshman Taylor McNamara and Sam Grant could be ready to hold down the position, along with juco transfer Brannon Green.

“I see it being a bigger part,” Stoops said. “I think it was more the inexperience. We tried it and there were too many, just overall, we didn’t feel they were quite ready to play at the level we needed.”

Coupled with the tight end inexperience, Stoops added that the emergence of transfer receivers Jalen Saunders and Justin Brown swayed the Sooners to run more four-wide sets, too.

“I think [that's the case] more than anything, and the experience that the wide receivers all had,” Stoops said. “As odd as it sounds to say, considering where we started with all of them, they were so productive and doing so well, we felt that was taking advantage of our personnel and experience the best.”

But with Brown and Kenny Stills gone, Stoops said he sees the Sooners returning to more tight end sets in 2013.

“We like our young guys and our guys coming up,” Stoops said. “We want our tight end packages to be more involved, definitely.”
With Justin Brown and Kenny Stills both gone, Oklahoma must replace both of its outside receivers this spring. But the Sooners do not lack options.

[+] EnlargeJaz Reynolds
Mark D. Smith/US PresswireWideout Jaz Reynolds didn't play a snap for the Sooners in 2012.
Trey Metoyer figures to get another shot in the starting lineup after beginning last season there. Metoyer had a phenomenal spring and seemed to be a lock to be one of OU’s top three receivers. Instead, he struggled to get on the same page with quarterback Landry Jones, and, after Jalen Saunders was cleared to play in October, Metoyer not only fell out of the starting lineup, but the rotation altogether.

Bob Stoops, however, said the Sooners remain excited about Metoyer’s future despite the disappointing freshman season.

“We’re very excited about Trey,” Stoops said. “He works hard and has a good attitude. Things didn’t quite click as fast as we thought, overall. Then you had some guys with experience that come about like (transfers) Justin Brown and Jalen Saunders -- those guys have played a lot of football.

“I think Trey has a really bright future and believe it will happen for him. Sometimes it just needs a little more time.”

Along with Metoyer, rising sophomore Durron Neal will also compete for playing time at outside receiver. When they go with three-receiver sets, the Sooners could also swing Saunders to the outside. Saunders played the slot out of OU’s four-receiver sets last season, but lined up on the outside at times at Fresno State.

One other player to watch is senior Jaz Reynolds, who did not play last season after he was suspended for the third time in his career during the offseason.

Reynolds, however, has been productive at different times as an outside receiver during his career, and is capable of providing the Sooners with a big-play threat downfield. But to get back on the field, Reynolds still has much to show the coaching staff, both on and off the field.

“He’ll determine that by his work ethic and his actions off the field and those kinds of things,” Stoops said of Reynolds. “He’ll have a chance to, but it’s fair to say it won’t be easy.

“We’ll see what he’s able to do. He’ll have to earn it.”

ESPN 300 WR Cavil sticks with Sooners 

January, 16, 2013
It was a hectic week for Dannon Cavil (San Antonio/Madison) as new offers were coming in just days before he was supposed to enroll in college, yet he ultimately decided to play football at Oklahoma.

What was the main reason the ESPN 300 receiver picked the Sooners?

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Sooner Snapshot: WR Jordan Smallwood 

January, 15, 2013
Each week SoonerNation will take a closer look at the Class of 2013 prospects currently committed to Oklahoma. The in-depth analysis pieces will take a look at the ranking, estimated year of impact and potential role of each future Sooner.

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Oklahoma was looking to add a unique prospect to its roster. And the Sooners reached that goal Monday.

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Sooners offer committed ESPN 300 WR 

January, 11, 2013
There could be another receiver in the competition to replace Kenny Stills at Oklahoma this spring. With Stills and Justin Brown moving on to the next level, Sooners receivers coach Jay Norvell is looking to add another receiver to his 2013 class.

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Roundtable: No. 1 offensive concern 

January, 10, 2013
Every Thursday, the SoonerNation staff will answer a roundtable question about OU football. Leave a comment or talk about it in our "There's Only One" forum.

Today's question: What is OU's biggest offensive concern going into the offseason?

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Stoops, Players Want To Effect Change
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops sits down with Gene Wojciechowski to discuss his team's stand against racism.