Spring Preview: Wide Receivers

Oklahoma wide receiver coach Darrell Wyatt breaks down his group heading into spring practice. Junior Travis Wilson (pictured above) is the Sooners' leading returning receiver in catches (43) and yards (601). He also caught a team-high nine touchdown passes in 2004. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

NORMAN — In 2004, the Oklahoma wide receivers were regarded as one of the very best units in the country. With All-American Mark Clayton and fellow seniors Mark Bradley, Brandon Jones and Will Peoples leading the way, they combined with talented juniors Travis Wilson and Jejuan Rankins to form a group that had a major impact in every single game the Sooners played.

Those six all played a significant role for the Sooners, and they formed the top six pass receivers on the Sooner squad with Clayton leading the way with 62 catches for 855 yards and eight touchdowns. Bradley set the standard for yards per catch, hauling in 21 passes for 425 yards at 20.2 yards per catch and seven touchdowns. However, no matter how you shake it the Sooner seniors left quite a legacy for future wide receivers to follow.

"What this group accomplished for us, I don't think we will fully realize to several years down the road," said OU wide receiver coach Darrell Wyatt. "Our passing game has now become one of the best passing games in the country, and because of what that senior class accomplished prep wide receivers are beginning to take notice. I think it is safe to say that at this point when any of our coaches call a prospective wide receiver recruit and says he is from the University of Oklahoma, that recruit wants to hear what he has to say. I think I can say with confidence that a great deal of top receivers will call us very early in the process to tell us that they have a great interest.

"However, the senior class has also left a success story, a work ethic and positive way of doing things, which is be so important to the future wide receiver groups that we sign here at OU. I don't think it is going to hurt us either when all four of those guys are playing somewhere in the NFL next year, or when a couple of them go high in the draft. If Mark Clayton or Mark Bradley go in the first or second round, as is expected, that is going to be a big boost for future wide receiver corp at OU."

Clayton was spectacular at the NFL combine and according to reports has jumped into the middle of the first round. Bradley was also incredible at the combine and has certainly moved into the second round, and with an excellent pro day in Norman on March 9 he could jump into the tail end of the first round.

Jones also did well and looks destined for the middle rounds. Peoples did not get invited to the combine, but he is primed for the Sooner pro day and could sneak into the later rounds.

With so many starters gone, the Sooners hit the recruiting trail and signed one of the top recruiting classes in the country. Malcolm Kelly, Manuel Johnson, Eric Huggins and Juaquin Iglesias are all very talented and one or two of those players has a chance to play in the fall.

This will be year that the 2003 class of wide receivers will get a chance to make their move up the depth chart. Quentin Chaney, Lendy Holmes and Fred Strong have all been impressive on the scout team, and in camp and several times last year the Sooner coaches thought of pulling the redshirt off Holmes and Chaney.

They will follow the leadership of Wilson, who had had a breakout year in 2004 catching 43 passes for 601 yards and a team-leading nine touchdowns. And then there is Rankins, who is finally going to get an opportunity for some major playing time after spot duty the last two seasons.

Wilson and Rankins bring some experience back to the unit, but you may have to go back to the first couple of years of the Stoops era to find such an inexperienced group of receivers on the Sooners roster.

"I like it when it is wide open. You get a sense of who is ready to step in and compete for a position because that is what our program is all about," said Wyatt. "We let the best player win the job, and I think we have enough depth and talent that every week you have to compete to be ready. You know that you are not going to be allowed to rest on what you did last week or last year, so I think it is a healthy situation."

That sounds like coachspeak in a so many ways, but at Oklahoma Wyatt's statement is so true. Even the All-American's have to complete every week or they can lose their starting spot.

"Every week I worked so hard in practice because I feared that I would lose my starting spot," said Clayton. "There were a couple of days at practice that I didn't do my best and Coach Wyatt had me off the starting unit. I got after it that day because I wanted to start on Saturday. That can happen to anybody at any position, and that is something that we are all aware of."

Wilson and Rankins have to step up as leaders as much of the attention and expectations of the wide receivers shifts to them.

"I thought Travis definitely had a breakout year leading us in touchdown receptions and coming up with a number of big plays," said Wyatt. "I still think he has a chance to make a lot of improvement and become one of the best players at his position in the country. I feel like if he will continue to make the progress that he has made the last three years, and make the same amount of improvement from his sophomore to his junior year, that he has a chance to be a special player for us.

"I consider Jejuan Rankins to be a starter for us. He started 13 games for us in 2003 (33-406-6). I consider both of those guys returning starters and I expect them to be the leaders of our wide receiver corp. I believe they have the ability to do it. Now, we need our talented group of redshirt freshmen to step up and answer the bell, and we have a talented group of newcomers coming in."

You know what the Sooners have in Wilson, and given the chance Rankins will put up numbers. However, they alone can not make the Sooner wide receiver corp a top-notch group. It is a must this spring that the redshirt freshmen prove they can play and satisfy OU Head Coach Bob Stoops' desire for making big plays.

"Lendy Holmes is a very athletic player who has tremendous ball skills," said Wyatt. "He has the ability to make a big play, as he is good after the catch. He has pretty good size at 195 pounds and he is over 6-foot tall. I think he is a guy that has a chance to be a special player for us.

"Quentin Chaney is a guy that brings tremendous size to the table. He goes 6-foot-5, 215 pounds with good speed. Quentin is continuing to develop into an unbelievable physical specimen. I think his best days are ahead of him, and I think if he can continue to make improvement this spring that he has a chance to be a special weapon for us.

"Fred Strong is a guy who has a good combination of speed and size and he is over 6-foot, 200 pounds. He is another guy that has a chance to develop into a good player."

A player that is often forgotten is Tristen Ross, who missed all of last season after transferring to Seminole Junior College to improve his academic standing. Before he left, Ross was a player that the Sooner coaching staff thought could be a great one.

"Tristen is a guy who we had anticipated being able to help us this past fall," said Wyatt. "Obviously, he is a guy with some skill. He has excellent ball skills, is an excellent route runner coming from an offense like Shreveport Evangel who has a great passing game. We feel he is a guy that is highly-skilled. He has to come back and make a commitment, and I feel he is ready to do that. Tristen is a guy who we feel can help us."

One question that always comes up is what players are playing the X-position or the Y or the Z. Coach Wyatt takes us to Pass Receiving 101.

"We see guys in different lights, and yes the X-position is different from the Z-position," said Wyatt. "There is a difference from the slot, which we call the H-position, but some of the guys are interchangeable. From our split end perspective, that is a guy that is going to play on the line of scrimmage. If you can you would like to have bigger guys because against press coverage he is going to have a defender right in his face. The guy who plays H, or a guy who plays Z, is going to play off the ball a little bit to give him a little room to work.

"A slot receiver to us sometimes is a smaller guy that can match-up against a strong safety or a nickel. We feel we can move a guy around and create mismatches. We like our Z-position to be a homerun hitter with our play-action passes, and a guy who can also run some reverses for us. He is a guy that has to help us on the strong side of the running game, and he has to have some size to go in and block a strong safety.

"We would like to have, in a perfect world, our outside guys to be bigger guys and our slot would give us an opportunity to play a smaller guy so we could move him around and protect him."

We now know that running back D.J. Wolfe is moving over to cornerback for the spring, but another player that could get a chance to go both ways is Holmes.

"He is a talented guy that in high school was an excellent defensive player as well as a wide receiver," said Wyatt. "He actually played in the high school all-star game in the secondary. He is a guy who can go over there and help us. We will certainly want to take a look at it.

"We might see Lendy playing some defense in the spring. We are going to try to put him in the best position to help us. We know that he is a great athlete with a lot of talent, and we are going to try to get him on the field in the best way to help the team."

The Sooner wide receivers and defensive backs run more than any other two positions in every practice, thus spring is always hard on both positions because injuries and the incoming freshman depth is not available. That will also be the case with the Sooner wide receiver group giving a couple of walk-ons and opportunity to shine.

"The demands on our wide receivers, in terms of running after the catch and down-the-field blocking, means they probably run more than anybody on the field," said Wyatt. "The great thing for us is that we have an outstanding walk-on program. We have some outstanding walk-ons like David Robinson and Jermaine Hardison that are going to give us some depth.

"We have some guys who have been around that will help us out in terms of being able to step in and take some reps. These guys are quality players, and that really gives us a chance to continue to practice at the level that we need to play for championships."

One advantage that Coach Wyatt has with every one of the Sooner receivers is that he either was the main recruiter or had a hand in recruiting each one of them.

"There is no doubt about it that helps out," said Wyatt. "I have a good idea how each player fits into our offense. Some of these guys are interchangeable and they can play other positions. It helps when you recruit them and you get to know them and get a feel for their personality.
"You see these guys fitting into puzzles at different positions, and that is one of the things that I think is really going to help in terms of finding a place for these guys. That is part of the process of recruiting them and getting their personality. Those guys get to know me and what I am about."

Look for Wilson to try to establish a leadership role this spring. This will be new for Wilson as for his entire career he has always had a veteran receiving corp to work and he was never asked to be any kind of leader.

Rankins needs to get his groove back. His confidence has been up and down his entire career at OU. He needs to have a great spring to spearhead a successful season this fall.

Ross it a total wild card in that the coaches loved before he fell short academically. Now, they are not sure what they have as he came back to OU out of shape and overweight. He has worked hard to get back into condition, but he has basically taken a year off from football.

All three redshirt freshman have the ability to play at OU. One or two of them need to step up and become major players for the Sooners this year. Holmes is the athlete that really excites the Sooner coaching staff, and Chaney is a player that they are very intrigued by. Strong started off his career with weak hands, but he has worked hard on catching the football and will be a solid player in that area this spring.

Robinson and Hardison are outstanding athletes that just might sneak in and get some playing time next year. Robinson is only 5-foot-7 and 155 pounds, but he makes plays and always seems to make catches in practice.

Hardison is a super physical specimen and looks like he can play. He struggled catching the ball sometimes last year, but he is always a hard worker and should be much improved in this area in the fall.

There is no question that the talent s there for the Sooners to reload at wide receiver, but there are so many question marks because many of the key players haven't played at OU. This spring will give us an idea just how important that talented freshman class is going to have to be.

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