NORMAN — Each year of Sterling Shepard’s collegiate career has presented different individual challenges.
As a freshman, the former Heritage Hall star had to adapt to the college game and did so remarkably well, finishing as Oklahoma’s third-leading receiver. Last season, Shepard’s productivity ebbed and flowed as the Sooners struggled to nail down an offensive identity with three different quarterbacks.
Shepard enters his junior year as his team’s most seasoned wide receiver, meaning an enhanced leadership role will be required for the soft-spoken Sooner legacy.
“When seniors leave and leaders leave, other people have to step up, and a lot of times you’re surprised by guys that maybe you didn’t think were gonna be able to be vocal, who step up and get the job done,” said junior center Ty Darlington. “Sterling’s definitely done that.
“He wasn’t a guy who was gonna jump on people or really try to be a leader when he had guys like Kenny (Stills) or last year like Jalen (Saunders). Now that it’s his time, he’s embraced it and done a good job.”
Oklahoma loses veteran receivers Jalen Saunders, Lacoltan Bester and Jaz Reynolds, plus running backs Brennan Clay, Roy Finch, Trey Millard and Damien Williams.
The Sooners return just three players with a touchdown reception in their collegiate careers — Shepard, fullback Aaron Ripkowski and kicker Michael Hunnicutt, who scored on a fake field goal last December against Oklahoma State.
In Shepard, Oklahoma has a reliable, tough and experienced playmaker on an offense lacking them, at least for now.
“He's had a great winter, the way he's worked, pushing other guys,” said OU coach Bob Stoops.
Shepard’s fourth-quarter, 54-yard touchdown reception at Notre Dame last September helped secure Oklahoma’s first victory over the Fighting Irish since 1956. He caught seven passes for 112 yards in the Sooners’ upset at Bedlam rival Oklahoma State, and then scored two touchdowns — one rushing, one receiving — in the Sugar Bowl stunner over Alabama.
The latter performance went a bit unheralded, even to Stoops.
“Going back through once we get back from recruiting and studying the game again, wow, he had a huge game,” Stoops said. “A monster game. Just physical. Even some of the bubbles he caught and made three or four yards when there wasn't much there.
“He's going to be a guy we definitely have to really focus on, and find different ways to keep getting him the ball more, which is obvious to everyone. He's been great.”