- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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NORMAN, Okla. -- One of the strongest positions on Oklahoma’s team last year was receiver. Going into this season, co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell’s unit once again appears to be a strength.
Norvell, who will spend this week coaching his youth camp, spoke with SoonerNation about how the quarterback derby has sparked the offense and how many receivers he plans to use:
SoonerNation: On signing day, you said you thought the quarterback competition would energize the offense and the team. Has that been the case?
Jay Norvell: I don’t think there’s any question. Whenever you get kids that haven’t played that are looking to show what they can do, you have a chip on their shoulder, and they play with something to prove. That energy and intensity rubs off on the other players.
Landry Jones was an incredible quarterback. But he was a very even-keeled leader. The leadership is different with these kids. These kids have a different personality, and it kind of rubs off on the team in a different way. I don’t think any question these kids are fiery competitors that want to do well, that are going to lay it on the line for the rest of the team. That will bode well for our kids.
There’s a balance to do that. Sam Bradford is such a perfect example of a guy who was calm and collected, but just a fiery, compassionate leader as well. I think we’re going to see that from some of those guys. That’s important. It’s important that that competition continues to elevate us and rub off on us. We have three guys that are all capable of moving the team, throwing the football effectively and helping us score points. That’s exciting. It’s not just one guy. I don’t think we’re going to have to rely on just one guy. They’re all going help our football team.
But I think we’re going to see a level of maturity and consistency that separates one from the rest. When we see that, there’s no doubt who is going to be our guy. We’re excited about that taking place.
SN: It appears that this could be a competition that continues into the season, too, right?
Norvell: Even after the starter is named, there’s going to be some opportunities for guys to be on the field. How they handle that is going to be important.
These guys haven’t really played before. There’s going to be mistakes. But they are going to learn from them. The key is minimizing those mistakes and putting us in position to win. That’s all we ask our QBs to do. We’ve had a lot of great players with a lot of great stats here. But the most important thing is for them to put us in position to win.
SN: Is Jalen Saunders ready to be the guy?
Norvell: He’s already transitioned into that. By the end of spring, and over the summer, there’s a real realization, different levels of reality that sit in. That happened to Kenny Stills last summer. We had guys suspended, you look around, and you’re the only guy that played. That’s really when the leadership begins to come out. These guys have to round each other up, throw and lift. [In the] old days, kids used to call each other [on the] phone, meet at the park -- that’s what is expected out of Jalen. Kenny was that guy last year. Jalen is that guy now. He is the leader, the elder statesman. It’s important he takes that role. That’s going to be helpful to those young QBs. We need a high level of consistent play outside, to help the QBs execute.
SN: Saunders is pretty slight (he weighs only 160 pounds). How do you balance preserving him while utilizing him as much as possible?
Norvell: Well, he’s a pretty tough kid. He’s learned to play at that size. He’s wiry strong. We’ll play him outside some, kind of like we did with Ryan Broyles. We’ll play Sterling Shepard outside some. But at this point in their careers, Shepard and Saunders are too good of players to be sitting on the sidelines. We’ll figure out ways to play them both. Jalen is really good outside because of his speed. We’ll play him outside, and play Shep in the slot some. They’ll be versatile and knowledgeable enough to play inside and out. We’re going to have to be good in those sets with the tight end on the field and three receivers. We’re probably going to be in those sets more, and that’s a good thing for us.
SN: What’s the next step for Sterling?
Norvell: Sterling has a great, fiery, demeanor for the game. The thing for him is becoming a more complete route-runner -- a smarter, headier player. Kids when they first come here rely on their athletic ability. But they realize it’s a much more complex game, especially for a slot receiver. You have to understand how these college defenses are combo-ing you inside and out. That recognition and understanding is where he’s really got to elevate his game. It’s hard to play in the slot if you’re not smart. Broyles was really smart. Saunders is really smart. It’s coming at you from all directions, and you have to really zero in and understand coverages. Attacking and getting yourself in positon to make plays faster -- that’s what made Broyles so special, Jalen so special. Sterling really needs to take that step.
SN: In the spring, you and (offensive coordinator) Josh Heupel seemed pleased with Jaz Reynolds’ progress. Is that still the case?
Norvell: I don’t think that story is completed yet. This summer, these guys are going to have academic and conduct responsibilities they are going to have to handle as well as football. So far, so good. But that one is not out of the woods yet. And I don’t think we’re going to really know until fall camp where any of those guys stand that were suspended. I’m not going to speak for Bob Stoops or Joe Castiglione, but I don’t think that one, the book is completely closed on that one yet. Those guys have fought hard to get back, and there have been different pieces to that, academic pieces, community service pieces, football pieces to that. They’re not completed yet. They still got some work to do.
SN: This is looking like a far cry from 2009. You've got a number of receivers vying for time.
Norvell: We have a lot of competition out there. I told them all, I won’t decide who starts. You guys will. We’re looking for the most competitive, accountable guys. Guys that teammates and coaches can depend on. I’m not sure who that’s going to be. We have a lot of guys competing for that outside receiver spot -- Lacoltan Bester, Durron Neal, Trey Metoyer, Dannon Cavil, Derrick Woods -- who can play inside and outside. And, we have three guys that just came to campus. Jordan Smallwood looks like he’s a junior in college already. Austin Bennett could play in the slot. K.J. Young could play in the slot or outside. It’s really gonna be competitive. Competition is the best motivator you can possibly have.
SN: How deep will you go in the rotation, especially if the plan is to use more three-wide sets?
Norvell: Probably six or seven, depending on how much four-wide we do. It’s going to be important for the guys to do the right thing off the field, too. All those things go into it.
SN: Because of the great spring he had last year, there were so many expectations put on Metoyer. Do you think that became a bit overwhelming and affected him?
Norvell: There was so much expectation with Trey, and after he went to Hargrave, people had been talking about him for two years. So there were a lot of expectations. Then we had a QB, who’s a four-year starter. Sometimes a true freshman doesn’t always mesh with that just because of a lack of experience. It’s going to help Trey working with these QBs, working with them a couple of years. Sometimes guys get humbled in understanding it takes more than just athletic ability. All these players are all good athletes. So you have to be on top of your game to be successful on the field. I think Trey is understanding that he has to hone his craft and be that kind of consistent, dependable guy his teammates can count on. That’s the biggest challenge for him, getting all of the distractions and outside things out of the way so he can focus on being a great player he wants to be and focus on that and have fun.