Shepard was well on his way toward a 1,000-yard season last year before a groin injury practically ended his season Nov. 1 at Iowa State.
With all the new faces at receiver for the Sooners, Shepard wasn’t talked about often during the summer and camp. The expectation was he would be there to deliver the goods as normal, and he would cement himself as the top dog once again.
After the first game, though, you sure didn’t get that impression. Other receivers had more yards. Other receivers had the touchdown. Shepard was basically just one of the guys.
And then Tennessee happened. And then Sooner Magic happened. And then you realized “he’s back” when it comes to Shepard and making big plays.
“I think everyone needs that type of game every once in a while,” Shepard said. “Me being hurt the last few games last season, I wanted to come back and have a good game. It happened to be against Tennessee.”
One play after another. The diving catch on third down on the final drive in fourth quarter. The leaping grab on the fade route for the touchdown to tie the game with 40 seconds left. The game-winning touchdown where Shepard inadvertently did a “Superman” pose stopping on a dime and diving toward the end zone.
No more doubting Shepard. OU fans will talk about the game-tying touchdown a lot and the Superman pose picture definitely struck a chord with fans. But for Shepard, it was that third down grab where he dove and kept his foot down on the grass with his body hovering over the sideline.
“It was a difficult catch, but I knew my feet were in,” Shepard said. “I knew I had to grab the ball. We had to stay on the field. There was no way I was going to let that one go through my hands or step out of bounds.”
That whole fourth quarter and two overtimes that followed felt like one long Sooner Magic video. Shepard would know what that’s like since his father, Derrick Shepard, had his own moment back when he was a Sooner.
In the 1983 Bedlam game, Derrick Shepard had a 73-yard touchdown catch that featured a little bit of everything en route toward OU winning a wild 21-20 game vs. the Cowboys.
For that reason as well as the fact Sterling Shepard had worked so hard to get back, his emotions got the best of him following that win.
“Let us get something big,” said Shepard about asking his father and God during the Tennessee game. “It finally game, and it was emotional.”
The Shepard who closed the game against the Vols was right back at it against Tulsa. He didn’t find the end zone, but Shepard was back to being that security blanket, back to making the competitive plays in having eight receptions for 144 yards.
He’s back as the No. 1 guy with 18 catches for 286 yards and two touchdowns. He has six more catches and 100 more yards than the next closest guy.
There was a wonder if the coaching change might affect his game, but Cale Gundy isn’t trying to alter Shepard’s game. It’s more of a fine-tuning approach.
“You know he’s talented,” Gundy said. “When the ball is in the air, he can go get it as good as anybody I’ve ever seen. My job is to push him in the right direction and max him out. He’s physical and tough. It’s just fine-tuning everything.”
OU has more weapons in the passing game than Shepard this year. That’s not a bad thing. Maybe his numbers won’t be as eye-popping as they were through the first two months last year, but that’s OK.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield has done a great job of getting more people involved and showing more trust in other receivers. It remains clear, however, that when OU needs a big play, he’s still Mr. Reliable. The Sooners are still going to No. 3, and Shepard is going to be there to come through.