Shepard's role for Sooners set to expand

It was a short gain, a simple catch in his third collegiate game.

Yet, Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard sent a message in the span of five seconds.

The Sooners standout caught the pass on an out route then vaulted over Kansas State’s Nigel Malone, leaving the Wildcats cornerback grasping at air while displaying some eye-popping athleticism. With the 11-yard gain Shepard removed all doubts about his ability to be a playmaker in crimson and cream.

Shepard went on to catch 96 passes for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns during his first two seasons. He proved to be one of the Big 12’s top clutch receivers with his 26 receptions for 415 yards on third down ranking among the conference’s best.

This season, Shepard’s role changes. The junior is the centerpiece of OU’s receiving corps for the first time with all eyes on him to be the go-to guy for sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight.

Teammates know they can count on the Oklahoma City native to make plays, but they’ve lauded his increasing leadership role as well.

“Sterling has done a great job being a vocal leader with the wideouts,” Knight said.

This spring, coach Bob Stoops immediately pointed to Shepard as one of the players who could fill the leadership void left by a quality senior class which included center Gabe Ikard and fullback Trey Millard, both four-year starters.

“He’s really emerged as a strong leader for us on offense,” Stoops said. “He’s consistent. He’s had a great winter in the way he has worked. He’s pushing other guys. He’s going to be a guy that we have to focus on and find different ways to keep getting him the ball more, which is obvious to everyone. He’s been great.”

Receivers coach Jay Norvell is challenging Shepard to become an even better player as he becomes a veteran and leader, not just for the offense but the entire team.

“I’ve told Shep that his world his different now,” Norvell said. “He’s not the young guy. He’s played a lot of football around here and he knows what it takes to win big games. He’s got to make players around him better.”

Setting an example with his effort, consistent production and forcing Big 12 coordinators to focus their game plans on him are among the ways Shepard can make his teammates better.

And the 5-foot-10, 193-pound pass catcher could find even more ways to impact games during his third season with the Sooners. He’s in line to return punts for OU after watching Jalen Saunders and Justin Brown excel as punt returners during his freshman and sophomore seasons.

“He’s been catching [punts] the last couple of years,” Stoops said. “We’ve just had the good fortune of having two experienced guys in Justin Brown and Jalen Saunders. They both had a year of doing it. Both were so good at it that Sterling hasn’t had to, but he’s caught balls for two years. He’ll be ready for it. He’s strong and can run balls, so he’ll be comfortable with it.”