ARLINGTON, Texas — Jalen Saunders stood on the Cowboys Stadium field Sunday and called the opportunity to play on it this week a “blessing.”
“It's something you dream of,” Saunders said. “Playing in the Cotton Bowl here ... this is amazing.
“I'm just really blessed to play in this game.”
The junior receiver spent nearly all of December unsure if he'd join his Oklahoma teammates Friday, when the Sooners meet Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
Saunders and sophomore defensive back Cortez Johnson were arrested early in the morning Dec. 2 — just hours after Oklahoma's win at TCU to end its regular season — and each charged with one misdemeanor count of marijuana possession. They're both due back in court Jan. 8, four days after the Cotton Bowl.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops announced Friday that Saunders would be allowed to play in the game. The same day, co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell called the junior receiver, who was in California with his family for the holidays, to tell him the good news.
Asked when he found out he would play, Saunders responded, “When you guys found out.”
Saunders transferred last May from Fresno State; he was originally expected to sit out this entire season, as the NCAA usually requires. His waiver request for immediate eligibility was initially declined, but that decision was overturned on appeal in the days before Oklahoma's fifth game of the season, a 63-21 rout of archrival Texas on Oct. 13.
Saunders has grabbed 53 passes for 766 yards and three touchdowns since then, and is Oklahoma's top receiver statistically over the eight games in which he's been eligible.
In his third game this season — a 30-13 loss to current No. 1 Notre Dame on Oct. 27 — Saunders caught a school-record eight passes in the first quarter alone, finishing with 15 receptions for 181 yards.
“Whenever things happen off the field, players are remorseful in that,” Norvell said Sunday. “Coach Stoops has dealt with that.
“Jalen is Jalen. Jalen has been preparing and getting ready to play just like all the other players. We expect him to play great Friday night.”
Saunders said despite the uncertainly surrounding his Cotton Bowl status, he practiced through December the same way he did all season.
“If I wasn't gonna play, I was gonna have to help out my teammates,” Saunders said. “And if I was playing, I was preparing myself and for the team. It was, I guess you could say, a win-win, in both situations. I was gonna help my team regardless.”
Facing Texas A&M's prolific offense — led by Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Johnny Manziel — the Sooners could find themselves in another offensive shootout. In two narrow, high-scoring victories near the regular season's end, Saunders' contributions were essential.
Nov. 17 in Morgantown, he caught seven passes for 123 yards, including a 76-yard touchdown. The next week, when Oklahoma edged Oklahoma State 51-48 in overtime, Saunders had 10 receptions, 162 yards and a touchdown. He also scored on an 81-yard punt return.
Stoops, who has typically issued one-game suspensions for past arrests, declined Sunday to talk much about Saunders' arrest and the decision to let him play, only saying “We had a statement issued. ... We've been pretty consistent with what we do, discipline-wise.”
Regardless, Saunders strongly emphasized that he's learned his lesson.
“I'm the type of person ... I'm not gonna make the same mistake twice,” Saunders said. “It's a learning experience. I'm over it. I'm past it.”