Frosh Sterling Shepard a reliable target

It was a simple play, one that largely went unnoticed as Oklahoma hammered Florida A&M 69-13 on Sept. 8.

Yet Sterling Shepard made it known that he could be a key part of the Sooners' offense during that play.

Showing no concern for his body, the freshman receiver elevated to grab an 11-yard pass from Landry Jones despite being sandwiched between two FAMU defenders to make the first catch of his college career.

Shepard’s first catch, along with his 10-yard touchdown reception against Kansas State last weekend, are arguably the two most competitive receptions by any receiver on the Sooners in 2012. Those plays are examples of why Shepard could become a mainstay in the offense going forward this season.

Against K-State on Saturday night, Shepard was the Sooners' lone offensive bright spot with seven receptions for 108 yards and one touchdown in his first college start.

“He was our player of the game,” said coach Bob Stoops. “He's a competitive guy, plays stronger and more competitively than most freshmen you'll see. He's just got a special talent and attitude about him and has an ability to make plays. We're excited about his future.”

Said center Gabe Ikard: “That’s probably the best true freshman performance since AD (former OU running back Adrian Peterson).”

One of the most impressive things about the freshman has been his ability to take advantage of every opportunity with the No. 1 offense. According to ESPN Stats & Info, he has caught all eight passes thrown to him by quarterback Landry Jones this season.

“Guys that play well will continue to get opportunities -- we’ve always done it that way around here,” said co-offensive coordinator/receivers coach Jay Norvell. “There’s no question, his first Big 12 game and he stepped up. Sterling held his own in there and played great.”

On passes of 10 or more yards against K-State, according to ESPN Stats & Info, Jones was 4-of-4 for 78 yards when targeting Shepard and just 3-of-12 for 60 yards when targeting everyone else.

“He was probably the most competitive guy we had on the outside on Saturday night,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “And we’ll need more of that from him.”

Shepard’s emergence could open up several options for the Sooners. Here are just a few ways the Sooners can take advantage of the Oklahoma City native’s talents:

• Move Kenny Stills to outside receiver at various times replacing Justin Brown or Trey Metoyer. It would put Stills back at the position he played during his first two seasons and help take the top off defenses with his speed. It would also open up running lanes for running backs Damien Williams and Dominique Whaley while creating space for intermediate routes for Shepard in the slot, much like Stills did for Ryan Broyles in 2010 and 2011.

• Much like its game plan against the Wildcats, OU could go to four receivers more often with Shepard joining starters Stills, Brown and Metoyer on the field. The formation worked well with Metoyer ending the game as the only one of the four with less than six receptions. And he was thrown to six times in the game by Jones.

• Game plan to get Shepard the ball on short passes, no matter what formation or personnel is on the field. Norvell said the Sooners will look to re-instill confidence in Jones by giving him short, easy throws to increase his confidence. Shepard could be the ideal guy to fill that void. Remember, Jones was at his best when he was connecting with Broyles on short passes and bubble screens. Shepard has similar traits: Competitiveness, open-field running ability and unique athletic skills. His game against the Wildcats showed Jones, and the rest of the team, that Shepard has the ability to step up in big games. And his reception percentage and production should further cement Jones’ trust.

Those are just three examples of how Shepard’s emergence can impact the Sooners as they enter the meat of their schedule with Texas Tech, Texas and Notre Dame among their next four games.

Shepard will be on the field, that’s the one thing of which we can be certain, it’s just a matter of how his playmaking ability will be used.

“He’s gifted,” Ikard said. “He has a good head on his shoulders, he’s a good athlete ... put the package in, get him on the field. I have full faith in his ability as a football player and ability to help this team, he gets in spots and makes things happen.”