Shepard, Sanchez young pups no more

It's a new day at OU at wide receiver and cornerback. Zack Sanchez and Sterling Shepard can't hide in the background any longer.

Up and down Oklahoma's roster, players are realizing it. That's just how quickly things can change. One year you're the youngest in the group, still wet behind the ears and learning.

The next now you're one of the most experienced out there. You're one of the leaders. You can't hide behind youth forever.

Sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight knows about it. He was the plucky redshirt freshman hoping to show what he could do last season. This year some have predicted him as a darkhorse candidate for the Heisman Trophy award. Guess that's what throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns against Alabama will do for you.

But by far the two most intriguing positions for OU's spring are at wide receiver and cornerback. Their similarities are striking. Each has one guy leading the charge. At wide receiver it's going to be junior Sterling Shepard. Sophomore cornerback Zack Sanchez will be expected to lead on the other side.

Then they're both losing key components from last year. No more Jalen Saunders and LaColtan Bester for Shepard. "Colvin Island" is gone with Aaron Colvin departing.

And the last similarity is both positions are full of young, hungry players itching for that chance to show what they can do on the big stage.

The wide receiver logjam is incredible with Durron Neal, Derrick Woods, Austin Bennett, Dannon Cavil, Jordan Smallwood and K.J. Young all legit options to see valuable playing time.

No matter who emerges from that group, however, Shepard will be expected to shoulder the load. Not just be the best wide receiver for Knight but make everybody else around him better.

"I've told Shep that his world is different now," wide receivers coach Jay Norvell said. "He's not the young guy. He's played a lot of football around here, and he knows what it takes to win big games. He's got to make players around him better."

"When you become a leader you have to make everyone else better. He's competing against guys at Texas and everybody else in our league and people around the country. He's got to raise his standard and his game."

Shepard had 51 receptions for 603 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Between Neal, Woods and Bennett they combined for 17 catches for 228 yards and zero scores.

But you could argue Sanchez has the even more difficult task ahead. Playing opposite Colvin, he was tested again and again. And again.

"I think you learn from your experiences and that's what playing does for you – it gives you a lot of experience to fall back on," defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. "He'll be a much more complete player than he was a year ago. Hopefully he'll be much bigger and stronger player. He needs to become that."

Nobody expected Sanchez to be in this position with the prevailing thought being he was there to provide depth and not much else beyond that.

He turned a lot of heads in his redshirt freshman season, making 46 tackles and leading the team by far with 15 pass defenses and 13 breakups. You could see him maturing toward the latter part of the season as well as both of his interceptions happened during the last three games of the season.

He already understands it's a different ballgame this time around.

"I had to take essentially the same role as Colvin," Sanchez said. "Being the oldest guy or most experienced guy at corner, I had to take the leadership role through winter workouts and spring.

"I have to be more vocal to the younger guys and lead by example so they see that I'm doing it right and not just talking about it."

It's a three-way battle for the other corner position between sophomores Stanvon Taylor and Dakota Austin and junior Cortez Johnson.

All three have had their ups in spring and all three have had some downs. It's a competition that should last well beyond the next month.

"It's huge," said Sanchez about the competition. "Stanvon, Dakota and Cortez are all doing a great job. They're all making plays, and it's kind of up in the air right now. It's going to be a tough decision for coach."

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