Norvell breaks down Sooners receiver battle

NORMAN, Okla. – Other than Oklahoma’s quarterback derby, the most hotly contested battle for playing time on the offense this spring resides at wide receiver.

Gone are Kenny Stills and Justin Brown – or 155 receptions, 1,838 yards and 16 touchdowns – creating a huge void several players are vying to fill.

Returning starters Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard are certainties to be in the rotation. But after them it’s, well, wide open.

“There’s been a lot of competition at the receiver position,” said receivers coach Jay Norvell. “Several guys are doing a lot of good things. We’re just trying to find guys who can be accountable and trustworthy -- who can be dependable day in and day out.”

Those fighting for a starting role, or at a spot in the rotation, include seniors Jaz Reynolds and Lacoltan Bester, sophomores Trey Metoyer and Durron Neal and freshmen Derrick Woods and Dannon Cavil. While none so far has assured himself of playing time, these next two weeks of spring ball will go a long way in determining who plays -- and who doesn’t -- next season.

“We have a lot of guys that are in that range right now in that they show flashes, but haven’t been able to show that consistency to line up in that first unit,” Norvell said. “But that is what spring practice is all about, though, and we’ve had guys show up every day and compete and execute. The guys that do that at the end of spring usually win those spots for the fall.”

Going into the spring, Bester, who transferred in from junior college last year, seemed like the least likely emerge out of the competition. After playing sporadically early, Bester fell completely out of rotation as younger players passed him on the depth chart; he finished with only three catches all season.

Bester, however, has brought a new attitude to spring ball, which has helped him make the plays in practice he didn’t last year.

“Bester has had a really good spring,” Norvell said. “When we brought him here, he was a really competitive guy.

“Now, he’s starting to turn that into making plays.”

Bester has also distinguished himself as a blocker. With the Sooners implementing the quarterback run game into the offense, that could prove valuable, and earn Bester even more playing time.

“We’re really stressing hustle, hustle blocks, getting downfield and getting in people’s faces, whether the quarterbacks are running or the running backs are running, make sure we’re getting out and blocking for them,” Norvell said.

“Bester is really physical, and he plays hard, and what a good blocker on the perimeter he is, because he plays so hard.”

Bester will have to keep that going to fend off some talented underclassmen.

Metoyer stole the show last spring after enrolling early, but couldn’t carry that over into the fall and also fell out of the rotation after winning a starting job in September. He is still searching for the consistency of a first-unit player. But he also has flashed plenty of big-time playmaking ability, including a one-handed grab over a defender on the sideline during practice last week that made its way around social media sites.

“The biggest thing we’re pushing with Trey is consistency,” Norvell said. “He has got to be more consistent play in and play out.

“When you’re a backup, you can come in and flash. But as a starter, the team is depending on you to be exact on every play, to play at a high level on every play. If you can’t do that, you simply can’t be a starter.”

Neal and Woods have also had their moments, too. Neal quietly became the team’s fifth receiver late last season, and had a reception in the Cotton Bowl.

“When Durron was in games he did a great job,” coach Bob Stoops said. “He's a big-play-type guy.”

Woods, who won co-offensive scout team player of the year while redshirting last year, is another potential playmaker. His versatility to line up either inside or outside receiver makes him an intriguing option for Norvell, too.

“Derrick Woods had had some very good practices,” Norvell said. “A guy that can make something happen who has shown some of the flashes that we saw in him as a freshman.”

Maybe the two most intriguing receivers at this point, however, are the oldest and youngest ones in the group.

Early enrollee Dannon Cavil at 6-foot-5, 205 pounds looks nothing like an incoming freshman physically. Gradually, Cavil is showing Norvell that he might be able to help the Sooners next season, especially since returning from spring break.

“It’s amazing when they’re just babies -- and that is what he is -- you see huge growth in every practice,” Norvell said. “He learns a little bit more each day and becomes a little more comfortable and honestly, the break was something for him -- he has been a different kid since coming back from spring break.”

Cavil, who has plenty of football bloodlines with his cousin Kwame Cavil starring for Texas in the late 1990s, has also been picking up the Sooners’ offensive system ahead of schedule.

“That is something he has really been focused on,” Norvell said. “On top of being a really good athlete, he’s super conscientious and a quick learner, and because of that, he has made a lot of strides on the field so far.

“If he continues to progress, he can really help us in the fall."

While Cavil has a long future ahead of him in Norman, this is Reynolds’ last shot. The fifth-year senior has been suspended three times in his career, including for all of last season.

So far, the former starter has towed the line, and, by several accounts, had a terrific winter that has carried over into the spring.

“Jaz is all about his day-in and day-out accountability to his teammates,” Norvell said. “There is nothing wrong with his ability -- he is a guy that can make plays for us. He has size and speed and big hands.

“We’re counting on him doing it day in and day out. If he does that, he should set himself up for a really good senior year.”