NORMAN, Okla. — It was a perfect fit.
Receiver Jalen Saunders was searching for a home in early 2012, looking to transfer from Fresno State after two seasons with the Bulldogs. Oklahoma was looking for a veteran receiver, hopeful to replace the departed Ryan Broyles, the NCAA’s all-time reception leader.
After a tip from former New Mexico State coach Dwayne Walker, Sooners receivers coach Jay Norvell got in touch with Saunders and convinced him that Norman, Okla., was the place to spend his final two seasons. Saunders quickly became one of OU’s top receiving threats and he’s put himself in position to be the fourth Sooners receiver selected in the NFL draft in the last three years, joining Broyles, Justin Brown and Kenny Stills.
OU received an explosive threat who has proven ability to change games. Saunders received added exposure and better competition week in and week out. Saunders' decision to finish his career at OU has paid off.
“Oklahoma has a great legacy behind its name and there have been a lot of greats come through here,” Saunders said. “Adrian Peterson, Ryan Broyles and Sam Bradford -- the list goes on and on. So this is just a great program to come out of.”
Entering the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Saunders has 198 career receptions on 295 targets for 3,010 yards and 24 touchdowns. In 21 games at OU, the senior has 118 receptions for 1,483 yards and nine touchdowns, with 61.9 percent of his receptions gaining a first down.
“Jalen has had a huge impact,” coach Bob Stoops said. “He has been a great player for us, explosive player, and a very consistent player, too. Every week he performs well and he plays hard and always has that ability to make big plays.”
Saunders is playing his best in a crimson and cream uniform during his final few games as a Sooner. He changed the game with a punt return for a touchdown against Iowa State, sparking a 48-10 win. He led OU with seven receptions for 95 yards in a 41-31 win over Kansas State and saved his best for last, catching the game-winning touchdown against Oklahoma State and added a critical punt return in the Sooners’ 33-24 win over the Cowboys to help earn the Sugar Bowl bid.
“He’s ratcheting it up,” Norvell said. “He sees the end coming and he really is dialed in to how he can help this team. We’re moving him around a little bit more; we’re putting him in different spots. Sometimes when you’re a college football coach you start seeing the end with some guys and you want to get as much out of him as you can. But he’s a really good player. He’s really tough for a little guy and we just are trying to use him up here these last few weeks and put him in good spots.”
During OU’s last five games, Saunders has 27 receptions for 376 yards and three touchdowns, six punt returns for 192 yards and two scores (32 yards per return) and a 55-yard kickoff return.
“He’s played a major role in our success down the stretch,” co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel.
The senior’s production helped earn him an invitation to the Senior Bowl, where he will get a chance to prove himself in front of NFL scouts and coaches. Questions about his size (5-foot-9, 157 pounds) will undoubtedly hurt his NFL stock, but he can start answering those questions in Mobile, Ala. in late January.
Norvell, who coached in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts and Oakland Raiders, believes Saunders can be an NFL receiver.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” Norvell said. “I think he’s really showing he can do a lot of things very well as a punt returner and a route-runner. I think they like his toughness. He’s showing that he’ll mix it up. We use him in a lot of situations where you’d use a bigger receiver and he goes in there and throws his body around, so I’m probably most proud about that of him and just how he’s played the physical part of the game.”