Shepard eager to be punt returner

Kick returner remains a mystery, but it's clear Sterling Shepard wants to be the guy for OU returning punts.

He has been waiting in the wings, but this season is the time to shine for junior wide receiver Sterling Shepard. Not only as the No. 1 man of the receiving corps, not only as one of the unquestioned leaders of the team but now as punt returner.

Shepard wasn’t afraid to let everyone know Monday morning he is going to be the guy for OU returning punts last year. It won’t be an easy task. You don’t just replace Jalen Saunders.

You don’t just replace 20 returns for 308 yards and two touchdowns. You don’t just replace the great field position the Sooners received all the time when punters were afraid to kick it deep to Saunders.

That doesn’t mean Shepard can’t do the job.

“I am looking forward to that,” Shepard said. “I sat behind on that for longer than I would have liked. It’s my turn now, and I am going to try to step out and do that. We have had some great punt returners in the past with Justin Brown and, of course, Jalen Saunders. I am just trying to do something back there.”

Shepard isn’t a receiver known primarily for his speed although that was once again a point of emphasis for him this offseason. But he’s tough, he’s reliable, and he’s not afraid of the moment.

What he hasn’t been, though, at times, is durable. Concussions are a real issue facing Shepard. He had two his sophomore season at Oklahoma City Heritage Hall and picked up another last season against Baylor.

With his history, it might seem like he’s not the best option for the spot. Ever the competitor, Shepard has no worries about it.

“I like the adrenaline rush,” Shepard said. “I’ve seen a lot of great wide receivers, defensive backs do it. It’s just another way to help out the team. I’m not worried about getting hit hard, that’s the name of the game.”

OU special teams coach Jay Boulware hasn’t been able to confirm nor deny anything with Shepard, but it’s clear Shepard has the seal of approval from OU coach Bob Stoops.

“He is similar to some of the guys that we’ve had in that he has great speed and elusiveness,” Stoops said. “He is stronger than Jalen and can run through some arm tackles. We are hopeful that he can give us some big plays that we are used to having.”

Shepard has made his fair share of big plays as a receiver, most notably in wins against Notre Dame and Alabama last year. But in the back of his mind, he was hoping this opportunity would be coming his way. He’s confident he’ll continue the strong tradition.

“I was with Jalen for two years so I got to sit back and watch how he does things,” Shepard said. “I still watch film on him every day. The way he gets a hold on the ball and then what he does afterwards is just all instincts. I think I have that part down. I just have to get to it and catch it.”

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