NORMAN — Slot receiver may well be the OU offense's single most important position.
How else to explain Landry Jones' post-Ryan Broyles stretch without a touchdown pass last season? Or the quick emergence of first-year Sooners Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard?
The Sooners spent the last few seasons relying heavily on Broyles, who turned out to be the only receiver on OU's roster truly capable of playing at a high level in the slot. This year? Oklahoma lines up in formations with four receivers more than ever, and it's because they've got three receivers who've been effective inside.
“We just feel like we had some good players we could trust to put on the field,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said of OU's more frequent use of four receivers at a time.
“It emerged because of Shep and Jalen both having the ability to be on the field at the same time. I think that really allowed us to be in that set more because those guys are both really good playmakers.”
After Broyles' 2011 season-ending injury against Texas A&M, Kenny Stills moved inside. But Stills, far more comfortable when split out wide, struggled to be effective. Without a reliable, sure-handed threat in the slot, Jones went three games without a touchdown pass.
During the offseason, though, Stills volunteered to start the season inside. After working to improve his play there, he excelled as Jones' go-to guy early in the season.
But back in August, during fall camp, Norvell and OU's offensive coaches began eagerly hoping for Saunders, who had transferred from Fresno State, to be ruled eligible.
The NCAA granted the junior immediately eligibility days before the Texas game; two weeks ago, Saunders set a school record with eight first-quarter receptions against Notre Dame.
Shepard, a true freshman from Heritage Hall, has drawn comparisons to Broyles since arriving on campus last summer. So far, he's caught three touchdown passes and racked up 344 receiving yards.
With Saunders and Shepard capable of playing inside, Stills joined Penn State transfer Justin Brown to give Oklahoma two legitimate outside threats.
As the four-man unit has come together — and Brown has adapted more to OU's offense — Jones is again showing the ability that made him one of the nation's top quarterbacks the past two seasons at completing deep passes.
Against Iowa State last weekend, he connected on six balls of more than 20 yards — four of which were for touchdowns. Before that game, he'd only completed 10 such attempts this season.
“It makes it a lot better,” Shepard said of having multiple threats in the slot. “Whoever's in at that moment, Landry can trust them, and that's one big thing that you need to have is trust.”
The slot position has become so popular, Norvell said, that other receivers are pleading to get reps there. True freshman Durron Neal, for example, has been used exclusively on the outside in his limited action so far, but asked Norvell the other day when he'd get a shot inside.
Players capable of truly excelling in the slot, though, must demonstrate a unique combination of athleticism, intelligence, awareness and toughness.
“It's a special feel ... certain guys aren't very comfortable in there, because there's people all around you, and they're trying to hit you,” Norvell said. “You have to have a certain amount of awareness when you're running in there, because there's a lot of land mines in the middle of the field that you've gotta avoid.”
Norvell, who recently wrote a book on wide receiver play, said the slot position emerged over the past decade as spread offenses became more prevalent in college football.
College defenses, Norvell said, usually struggle when they're spread out and forced to use more linebackers in pass coverage.
“The biggest difference between college and pro football are the defenses,” said Norvell, who has spent many years coaching at both levels.
“The great athletic defenses are able to defend spread teams, but there's still not many that have three linebackers that can cover, and five or six DBs that can cover. You can usually find a weak link. I think that's one of the things we've found out this year, playing four wides. One of those guys is gonna be open.”