Brown leads receiver transformation
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NORMAN, Okla. -- As news of the suspensions of Sooners receivers Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks rippled through the state of Oklahoma on May 20, all eyes turned toward Kenny Stills. The junior was the lone OU receiver in good standing with the program who had a collegiate catch.
Three months later, the Sooners receiving corps has gone from potential weak link to possible strength heading into OU's season opener against UTEP at 9:30 pm CT on Saturday at Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, Texas.
Penn State transfer Justin Brown decided to join the Sooners in early August and multiple newcomers -- junior college transfer LaColtan Bester and freshmen Sterling Shepard and Durron Neal -- appear poised to make an impact this fall. In addition, Reynolds and Franks have been reinstated, although both remain suspended from game action and Franks has moved to the secondary.
"Justin was a kid we reached out to because we felt like we needed a mature, experienced receiver that has played," receivers coach Jay Norvell said. "And he was interested in the opportunity here. The more we talked, the more we felt like it was a good fit."
After a quick visit to Norman, Brown decided OU was the ideal place to complete his eligibility. What piqued Brown's interest? Heisman candidate Landry Jones and an offense that averaged almost 45 pass attempts per game in 2011.
"They had a need at receiver, a good offense and a good quarterback," Brown said. "I watch a lot of football. I've watched Coach (Bob) Stoops and OU since I was little so I was familiar with the program."
Brown's impact was immediate, but quiet. He went to work learning the offense and took a business-like approach to each day during preseason camp. His words didn't reveal how serious he was about making a difference in Norman, his actions did.
"He's mature, competitive and smart," offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. "He has attention to detail in everything he does and how he conducts himself. He's able to make a bunch of plays. He's good for our young receivers as far as how to operate and how to conduct yourself on a daily basis."
Said center Gabe Ikard: "He's made some really competitive catches in practice. He keeps to himself and handles his business."
It wasn't happenstance.
Norvell and Brown discussed the importance of using his maturity and experience to make a positive impact on a group of Sooners receivers with just 25 total career starts, all by Stills.
"We talked about that, he felt like that was key with a young group," Brown said. "If somebody sees you do something, they can judge your character off that instead of the 'Rah rah' then you go out and do something else. I think I can lead and affect other people by my actions."
OU is hoping Brown's impact is felt both on and off the field. Thus far, it has been. The burden of being the lone experienced playmaker and lone mentor is no longer on Stills' back, Trey Metoyer -- who enrolled in the spring and will likely start as a true freshman -- doesn't have as much pressure to perform at a high level immediately while Bester, Shepard and Neal can provide quality depth in spot duty.
Most importantly, the young receivers on the roster are learning from his example.
"He's an older guy, he has a ton of experience, so he's been able to help me help the younger guys," Stills said. "He's been able to push me to continue to get better. There's a lot of things I've learned from him. I'm excited to have him."
Said Metoyer: "You can tell he wants to win and he wants to play. When he's in he goes 100 percent. He came in from Penn State, (he used to) play in front of 100,000 people, I feel like if he can tell me what I need to do, I'm on my way."
Bester, a late signee and late arrival to campus, has been impressive and should provide quality depth. His speed and playmaking abilities have been noticed.
"He's really, really good in the open field," Jones said of Bester. "(On) screen plays, quick passes and he's strong to the catch. He makes good moves and he's physical."
Incoming freshmen Shepard and Neal have had impressive moments in August and appear poised to get opportunities to make plays this fall.
Those four player -- Brown, Bester, Shepard and Neal -- have joined Stills and Metoyer to give OU plenty of options heading into the season opener and changed the perception of the Sooners receivers from soft spot to strength in a matter of months.
"I'm extremely pleased," Jones said of his potential targets in 2012. "Justin and Trey Metoyer are coming along, playing good football for us, and Kenny has been steady, always there for us. Sterling Shepard, Durron Neal have been stepping up."