The Oklahoma wide receiver corps will go into the spring as one of the strongest units on the roster. The group returns every receiver who made a catch last season and each player who comprised the three-deep.
For many programs that is not always a good thing, but OU has a great deal of talent on hand, including one of the very best receivers in the country in junior Malcolm Kelly (6-4, 217), who caught 62 passes for 993 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, along with juniors Juaquin Iglesias (6-1, 201) and Manuel Johnson (5-11, 171).
"All three are very talented, but they know they have many areas where they can get better," said wide receiver coach Kevin Sumlin. "We have talked about their talents many times. Malcolm had a great year last year, but he knows he can play better. He needs to work to get bigger, stronger and even faster. Malcolm needs to become a more physical receiver, because with his size and ability he can become a great down-field blocker. He is already a great athlete, but he can become a better one. Malcolm has a desire to be great and he can never lose sight of what it takes to be great. He needs to concentrate on doing what he needs to do to make sure that he can have a major impact in every game that we play.
"We are going to hold Malcolm out of spring because of a minor knee surgery, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. That will just give some of our younger receivers a chance to get extra work and it will give Malcolm a chance to work on getting stronger and work on the making himself a better athlete than he already is.
"Juaquin Iglesias needs to work on his route running and becoming a more consistent receiver. Manuel Johnson was banged up a little last year, but when healthy, especially toward the end of the season, you can see his tremendous talent on the field. Manuel has great speed, along with Juaquin, and they need to work on how to take advantage of that speed even more so this spring."
This group of receivers follows in the footsteps of Mark Clayton, Mark Bradley and Travis Wilson, who are all playing in the NFL. And Kelly has talked with those three enough to know what it is going to take to become an NFL-type receiver.
"It is just hard work and then more hard work," said Kelly during bowl practice. "Any time you ask any of those guys that is what they say. They don't talk about the glamour of the NFL — it is about the work ethic that it takes to become a great receiver. I am not anywhere close to being that kind of receiver, and I know I had a pretty good year. I probably dropped five passes or so and probably had more that I should have caught. I know that I missed blocks down field and I know I missed a couple that kept A.D. and A.P. from scoring touchdowns. So, believe me, I know the spring is important for me.
"The spring is great because you do work on a lot of fundamentals, and that is exactly what I need to get back to. I need to improve my route running and definitely need to catch the ball better. Coach Sumlin is telling me all the time that I have only shown a third of my ability and I need to get to where I am playing at the top of my ability."
Johnson and Iglesias both have similar goals for the spring.
"This year was frustrating for me because it took me a long time to get healthy," said Johnson. "I think a good offseason in the weight room and working with coach (Jerry) Schmidt will be good for me, and then in the spring I just need to polish my routes and just become a better all-around receiver."
Added Iglesias, "I can never stop learning as a receiver, because there are always new defensive schemes to stop the passing game and new routes that our offensive coaches come up with. I think, as a receiver, you always have to learn how to make adjustments and the spring is a good time to learn more about, not only what we are doing on offense, but what the defense is trying to do to stop us. The quicker I can recognize things on the field, the better receiver that I will be."
Kelly, Johnson and Iglesias put together pretty good years and the goal in the spring is to take their game to the next level.
"We are just trying to pick up where we left off," said wide receiver coach Kevin Sumlin. "I thought we continued to improve during the season and we are looking to pick up where we left off during the year. We need to continue to mature and get better. I hope we have learned from the mistakes that we made the last couple of years. We need to get real efficient at what we do now and be consistent. We need to just not show flashes of talent, but be consistent and be good as a position group. We need to develop some depth, because we have some talented guys here and they should be pretty good in the spring."
Junior Quentin Chaney (6-4, 213) played well in a back-up role to Kelly throughout the season, and when Kelly went down in the Fiesta Bowl it was Chaney who came up with four catches for 37 yards and one touchdown. Junior Fred Strong (6-1, 197) started one game in place of Johnson and finished the season with nine catches for 73 yards. Sophomores Adron Tennell (6-4, 184) and Brandon Caleb (6-1, 196) got their feet wet as true freshmen.
"He played pretty well in a championship setting in a bowl game," said Sumlin. "We put him in that position during the year and he made plays against Missouri, which was the go-ahead touchdown. The same thing with Adron Tennell (6-4, 184) in the Big 12 Championship game, and all of those guys have worked at practice. They are all more than capable and they all got valuable experience from last year."
It is in the spring where the backups will get a chance to prove they deserve more playing time. The fact that sophomores Tennell and Caleb received valuable game experience should be a benefit for them this spring.
"They are going to have the same kind of opportunities that everybody else has," said Sumlin. "I think they got valuable experience playing in games, playing on special teams, traveling. They know what to look for now and their development is going to help the group. I have said all along that not just the freshmen, but Quentin Chaney and all the guys who continued to develop over the course of last season, that really helped us. Our depth played in critical situations.
"Adron Tennell caught a big pass for us in the Big 12 Championship game. Quentin caught the game-leading touchdown against Missouri. And with Malcolm's injury in the Fiesta Bowl, I thought Quentin played a great ballgame. You never know when your chance is going to come and that is what practice is all about. Spring is about competing for a position and that is what it should be all about."
Started strong and then tailed off some during the season. But Sumlin says every receiver, not just Strong, need to prove that they can be counted upon on a consistent basis.
"We need consistency and we need to count on them on and off the field," said Sumlin. "We need them to mature as individuals and as a group. I think at different times during the year everybody contributed. Manuel was hurt at the beginning of the year and in the middle of the year and I thought Fred Strong gave us great minutes until Manuel got back. Everybody has had their moments. What we need is for everybody to be consistent, mature and learn to play consistently at a high level all the time."
Getting physical and catching the ball will be two major priorities in the spring.
"We will work on the complete development of the receiver," said Sumlin. "I thought there was a lot made early in the year with drops, and I thought through the course of the year we really improved there. With young receivers, probably the hardest thing to come to them is blocking. I think one of our goals in the spring is going to become known maybe as not the most physical, but one of the most physical groups in the country. That comes in the weight room and comes with being tough, even without the ball. That is one of our biggest goals in the spring."
Sophomore Eric Huggins has decided to transfer in a search for more playing time. He will remain in school through the spring semester to finish out the academic year. He hopes to transfer to East Carolina.
Spring Position Preview: Wide Receivers
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