NORMAN — Once the ball was in Jalen Saunders' hands, he didn't hesitate.
Late in the first quarter of the Dec. 7 Bedlam game, the Oklahoma returner took a punt at the OU 36 and immediately went straight up between two groups of defenders. Then he cut to his right, around the edge, and outran every Oklahoma State defender for a touchdown.
The return was planned out well in advance.
“I take a lot of time during the week to prepare for our opponents,” Saunders said.
Saunders' extensive preparation for punt returns and his success in doing it is a big reason why the Sooners' season turned around.
In each of OU's last three games, a Saunders punt return went a long way toward turning the tide to the Sooners.
“He's played a major role in our success down the stretch,” co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said.
Against OSU, Saunders knew where to expect the ball to go and what to expect from the coverage unit.
“Which way their players release, how they release, and how far they punt the ball, how high they punt the ball,” Saunders said. “I just pay attention to a lot of those small-detail things.”
Since he began playing football as a child, Saunders has played all around the football field, bouncing between quarterback and wide receiver and elsewhere.
The constant has been returning punts.
“It's just like second nature now,” Saunders said. “I feel like every week we can get a big return.”
The senior transfer from Fresno State has been delivering that lately.
Against Iowa State, his 91-yard return for a touchdown just before halftime tied the game and gave the Sooners some momentum after losing Blake Bell in the first half.
Then against Kansas State, Saunders ran in front of the coverage on a punt early in the fourth quarter and returned it to the Wildcats' 3 to set up a touchdown that made it a 10-point game.
Then came the Bedlam touchdown, the second consecutive season that Saunders has delivered a punt-return score against the Cowboys.
“I just had plenty of space to run,” Saunders said.
Sure, the blockers delivered some of that space. But Saunders created plenty of it himself.
“Keep your poise, keep your composure, all that,” Saunders said of the keys to his success as a returner. “Watch film and really just prepare yourself for it. Practice it rep after rep. It's something you get used to after awhile.”
Over the last three games, Saunders returned five punts for 191 yards and the two touchdowns, averaging 38.2 yards per return.
Although he hasn't been as prolific over the course of his two seasons in Norman, Saunders' value to the Sooners at the end of this season has been compared to the contributions of Ryan Broyles.
“No doubt,” Sooners coach Bob Stoops said of the similarity of their impacts. “Jalen has been a big-play guy all year. He is very dangerous on punt returns for sure. He's made great plays on offense. So he's definitely that type of player.”