Versatile Shepard set to be OU's top target

Sterling Shepard could have something big in store for 2014.

The Oklahoma receiver’s collegiate career was in its infancy when he put the Big 12 on notice by leaping over Kansas State’s Nigel Malone during a post-catch run in his third game wearing crimson and cream in 2012. One year later, as a sophomore, Shepard was streaking through Notre Dame’s secondary for a 54-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown to seal the Sooners' win over the Irish.

With his junior season just weeks away, Shepard is hoping to have an even bigger impact on the Sooners this fall.

“Each year I want to make a step up,” Shepard said. “I know I have to step up this year and be a leader. I look to get better every year, I’ve been watching a lot of film, trying to perfect the little things.”

Shepard's ability to change games is unquestioned. His emergence as a true freshman in 2012 essentially transformed OU’s offense into a four-receiver attack as the Sooners looked to find room for the talented youngster. As a sophomore, he became a staple of OU’s offense, pairing with future NFL draft pick Jalen Saunders to give the Sooners a solid receiving duo.

“I had some good games, but I’m always looking for the thing to do better,” Shepard said. “I'm always trying to perfect something, there’s always something going wrong in a game. I look back, and I want things to be perfect.”

Shepard enters his junior season with 96 career receptions for 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns. But his next step is to handle the responsibility of being No. 1 receiver in the Sooners’ passing attack. It’s a role the junior looks toward receivers’ coach Jay Norvell to help him navigate.

“Coach Jay has been with the best, coached the best, he knows what it takes to be the No. 1 guy,” Shepard said. “He’s talked to every guy who has been through here and been the No. 1 guy. He knows what it looks like. He’s been stressing to be on top of everything you do, be it on the field or off the field, everybody is looking at you.”

Kenny Stills handled that role during Shepard’s freshman season in 2012. In 2013, Saunders took over the No. 1 receiver spot. Shepard got the rare opportunity to watch and learn a pair of future NFL draftees during his first two years on campus.

“The thing about Sterling, he’s just so competitive, he’s going to take advantage of every opportunity he has,” Norvell said. “His leadership is showing through and his versatility is starting to show through now.”

Like Stills before him, Shepard has progressed from true freshman standout to versatile junior as a guy who can line up in the slot or on the outside for OU.

“He’s shown he can play in the slot, now he’s showing he can run routes,” Norvell said. “Being able to play in the slot and on the outside and be a quality route runner is where he is completing his game.”

And the burden of leadership has comfortably landed on Shepard’s shoulders.

“I’ve seen it since early last spring then over the summer I really saw it,” Norvell said of Shepard’s growth as a leader. “He’s been way more vocal with all of the other players and spreading his wings that way.”