Heading into the 2012 season, one of the biggest questions about Oklahoma was at wide receiver. There was some experience there, and OU wide receivers coach Jay Norvell was optimistic about some of his young guys.
And then there was this tiny slot receiver Jalen Saunders. He wanted to transfer from Fresno State, and the Sooners decided to take a chance.
He was sensational with the Bulldogs, but nobody knew how that would translate into Big 12 play. The prevailing thought was OU fans would never get a chance in 2012, either. But the OU administration worked hard to get him cleared, and it paid off during the latter half of the season.
Saunders had breakout moments in 2012 and was third on the team with 62 catches for 829 yards and three touchdowns. A lot was expected of Saunders in 2013.
There’s no doubt he produced. The level of degree you believe he did may vary, but Saunders did everything that was asked of him during his two years in Norman.
“He has an ability to make plays in space for us as an offense,” co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “He’s played a major role in our success down the stretch.”
The numbers won’t indicate it, but his finest hour might have been his last in OU’s upset Bedlam victory at Oklahoma State. A punt return for a touchdown, a triple option fourth down conversion, a huge reverse run to set up a score and of course the game-winning touchdown with 19 seconds to play.
OU could certainly use some more big plays from Saunders in the 2014 AllState Sugar Bowl against Alabama on Thursday.
Saunders had a little assistance along the way with his uncle being former NFL wide receiver Webster Slaughter, something Saunders has always taken advantage of.
“I have watched pretty much all of his tape from college to the NFL,” Saunders said. “In high school when I was playing just receiver he helped me, and we focused mainly on wideout. I really appreciate him and what he has done for me. I appreciate my dad as well.”
Saunders came into OU as this dynamic outside receiver who knew how to make big plays. He leaves OU as a polished receiver at either the outside spot or the slot and an accomplished punt returner. One look at some of his punt returns is all you need to know to realize he can go.
Saunders had 18 returns for 302 yards and two touchdowns this season. That might be his calling card to get a crack at the NFL.
“Given the chance I will certainly try to get the same opportunity,” Saunders said. “If I’m given the opportunity, I will give everything I have to make the most out of the opportunity. Oklahoma has a great legacy behind its name and there have been a lot of greats come through here.”
Saunders didn’t put up eye-popping numbers, at least on the surface. You have to dig deeper to see what an impact he had.
In 2012, Saunders caught 16 percent of OU’s passes. This year he had 56 catches for 654 yards and six touchdowns. But 2012 saw OU complete 376 passes. This year saw OU only connect on 193 attempts. Saunders actually caught 29 percent of OU’s receptions.
He has gone from being somebody that wasn’t even on OU’s radar coming out of high school to being a huge contributor so far away from home and proving he deserves a chance at the next level.
“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.”