By JOHN SHINN
NORMAN — Early Monday afternoon, Oklahoma’s players gathered in their meeting room to watch the tape of the Notre Dame game. The final result was still fresh in their minds. Every player remembered what he’d done.
But the coaching staff wanted everyone to fully understand how well the Sooners’ receivers had played. Everybody remembered Sterling Shepard’s and Lacoltan Bester’s touchdown catches. They wanted every single player in the room to see the blocks they had all afternoon.
“They were killing ‘em,” OU safety Gabe Lynn said. “You saw it. They were killing guys on the outside.”
Blocks like those are essential in the 11th-ranked Sooners’ offense. They turn the short swing passes into big gains and toss sweeps into scoring threats. It all comes down to whether a receiver is willing to do something without the ball.
“(Receivers coach Jay) Norvell is usually on us about blocking. He talks about the early 2000 receivers, how they used to block, take control of the defensive backs,” wide receiver Jalen Saunders said. “We’re just trying to bring that style of play back into our offense.”
The offensive style is different than in previous years. OU only had 238 receiving yards in the Notre Dame victory, but OU coach Bob Stoops called the performance by the receivers the best he can recall in decade.
When OU is getting that kind of play from its receivers, it elevates the running game, and can be inspiring.
Neither Saunders nor Shepard, who combined for 12 of OU’s 23 receptions last Saturday and 132 of the receiving yards, are physically imposing. Both are shorter than 6-foot tall. Neither weighs more than 190 pounds.
“Those are our chicken fighters out there — Sterling and Jalen. They’re not very big, but when they lock in and play hard, they can get the job done,” Norvell said. “That was a big difference in the game from a year ago. We were more physical on the perimeter. We were more physical inside with our linemen. And we ran the ball more physically on our pass routes as well as our running plays.”
Playing with that kind of tenacity can pay dividends for receivers.
Lynn knows it all too well.
“Little dudes like that that have attitudes just get on your nerves,” he said. “Sometimes you’d rather have a big slow dude, because those little guys get on your nerves.”
OU (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) hopes its receiver are in a feisty mood when it faces TCU (2-2, 1-0) at 6 p.m., Saturday at Owen Field.
The ability to run the ball has separated the Sooners from its previous four predecessors. They’re averaging 5.7 yards per carry and are actually averaging more rushing yards than passing per game.
The receivers’ willingness to block has played a major role.
“Most receivers want to catch the ball and get stats and all that. The reality is that 90 percent of the time they’re not gonna have the ball in their hands,” Norvell said. “How they play and how hard they play when they don’t have the ball is really, really important.”
The better OU runs the ball, the more opportunities that will open up down the field. Shepard’s touchdown catch against Notre Dame was an unrivaled example.
Safeties were cheated up to stop the run. Shepard beat his man then had a clear path to the end zone. It was like OU spent three quarters setting it up.
“It’s a mindset. We definitely had that and we’ve got to continue that,” Norvell said. “It’s got to be an every week thing.”