NORMAN — Kenny Stills took a couple deep breaths, looked Bob Stoops in the eyes and revealed a few days after the Cotton Bowl that he wouldn't return to Oklahoma for his senior season.
“I told him I had an opportunity to pursue my dream, and my dream was to get to the NFL,” the former Sooners receiver told The Oklahoman in a telephone interview Friday.
“I didn't want there to be any hard feelings, and I hoped he wished me the best. It was definitely very difficult for me. I feel like we left on a really good note.”
Stoops held similar meetings with safety Tony Jefferson and linebacker Tom Wort, each of whom also decided to forgo his senior season of college football to pursue NFL glory.
Fullback Trey Millard considered the same path, but ultimately chose one more college season. Cornerback Aaron Colvin remains the last underclassman Stoops expects to hear from — either way — regarding the 2013 NFL Draft; Colvin has until Monday to make a decision.
“To me in a lot of cases it's foolish,” Stoops said Friday of underclassmen who leave early. “You never get your value. You give up your education. You give up the opportunity to finish your senior year and to play ball. Some of them will never play ball again because they won't get drafted.”
Stills caught 82 passes for 959 yards and 11 touchdowns as a junior, and finished his college career with 204 career catches; he's only the fourth player in Oklahoma history with at least 200 career receptions.
Word of his decision to declare for the NFL Draft began leaking out Saturday, one day after the Sooners' 41-13 Cotton Bowl loss to Texas A&M.
“My family was kinda dealing with the process for me, and they thought it was the best decision for me to make,” Stills said. “I trust what my mom and my dad have to say, and they truly thought it was the best decision for me.”
ESPN ranks the 6-foot-1, 190-pound receiver as the 14th-best receiver prospect available.
Stills leaves Oklahoma after a tumultuous junior season that saw him assume a much greater leadership role within the wide receiver corps after Ryan Broyles' departure and three returning starters' indefinite suspensions in May.
The arrivals of senior Justin Brown and junior Jalen Saunders, from Penn State and Fresno State, respectively, helped ease some of the pressure on Stills, but he said those summer months in 2012 vastly enhanced his leadership skills.
“I had to lead by example, and not just talk about it, but really be about the things I was saying,” Stills said. “Just for me to be able to take that step and be able to lead a group of guys, and have them put trust me, it really changed me as a player.”
With Saunders; sophomores Sterling Shepard, Durron Neal and Trey Metoyer; and redshirt freshman Derrick Woods, Oklahoma's receiver corps looks like one of the team's strongest units entering the 2013 season, which Stills cited as something that helped make his decision to leave easier.
“I didn't feel like I was leaving the team in a bad position,” Stills said. “I feel like the guys that were recruited and the guys that are there are ready to step up. They're excited. They're probably a little bit sad, as I am, but they're excited to get their opportunity to play.
“I told them when I left, ‘It's your time to shine.'”