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.