Saunders makes surprise impact

After half-a-dozen appeals, transfer wideout was cleared by NCAA to play last week

Updated: October 17, 2012, 12:00 PM ET
By Jake Trotter | SoonerNation

NORMAN, Okla. -- Jalen Saunders was going through his daily routine with the scout-team offense when safety Tony Jefferson came running his direction in the middle of practice last week.

Jefferson gave Saunders a hug and said, "You're good to play, man."

At first, Saunders didn't think Jefferson was serious. But then he saw coach Bob Stoops waving him over, too.

"I couldn't believe it," Saunders said. "I was really excited."

[+] EnlargeJalen Saunders
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesJalen Saunders caught two passes for 54 yards in his first game for the Sooners.
So was quarterback Landry Jones, and the rest of the Oklahoma offense.

After half-a-dozen appeals, the NCAA finally -- and suddenly -- granted the Fresno State transfer eligibility to play this season, giving the Sooners another dynamic receiving option just in time for the Red River Rivalry.

Despite practicing with the first-team offense for just a little more than two days, Saunders made an instant impact at the Cotton Bowl. The 5-foot-9, 160-pound receiver made his debut in the first quarter, then hauled in 32- and 22-yard receptions in the third quarter as the Sooners wiped out Texas 63-21.

"He's a very quick, shifty receiver; he's got great hands and has a great knack for that slot position," Stoops said. "He's not a huge guy, but that doesn't matter -- Ryan Broyles wasn't, either. Jalen is going to bring a lot to what we're doing."

Saunders put up Broyles-like numbers last season at Fresno State. He reeled in more than 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns, and was second in the country, averaging 21.2 yards per catch. Even though coach Pat Hill was replaced with Tim DeRuyter, Saunders went through spring practice with the Bulldogs, but afterward he elected to transfer.

It wasn't long before OU receivers coach Jay Norvell got a call from New Mexico State head coach DeWayne Walker, a friend of Norvell who had coached against Saunders in the WAC.

"He called me up to tell me this kid was looking at transferring," Norvell said. "DeWayne had been up here [during the spring] watching our practice. He said, 'I've seen what you guys got, and this kid can definitely help you.'"

Norvell coaxed Saunders into visiting Norman, and when he did, the two sides hit it off.

"I loved it here," said Saunders, who was also considering Washington and Texas A&M. "The opportunity was the best thing for me here, and all my classes transferred for my [criminal justice] major."

Saunders was coy about the grounds for his appeal, but Norvell has indicated it was because of a medical issue.

In any case, Saunders adds another piece to a formidable wide receiving corps that once was teetering on the edge of catastrophe.

In the spring, Stoops suspended part-time starters Jaz Reynolds and Trey Franks indefinitely, a devastating blow to a unit that was already having to replace Broyles, the school's all-time leading receiver.

But incoming true freshmen Trey Metoyer, Sterling Shepard and Durron Neal all proved they were ready to contribute right way. Then the Sooners added Penn State transfer Justin Brown, who won a starting job on the outside despite arriving on campus a week after practice had started.

Three-year starter Kenny Stills leads the Sooners with 32 receptions out of the slot, but six other receivers have at least two receptions now, too.

"This is the most depth we've had since I've been here, for sure," Jones said. "Ryan was a great player and he did a lot of great things here, but I don't know if we've ever had the depth we have now at wide receiver.

"Jalen is one more guy the defense is going to have to account for."