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Sooner offense looking for best receivers to step forward in 2009

It will be one of the biggest questions Oklahoma has to answer during the 2009 season. Sam Bradford has already stored last season’s Heisman Trophy in the Sooner archives. In order to add another, he has to have reliable targets.

Which left fans to wonder, “Who will they be?”

It’s a very important question, considering OU is looking for ways to replace departed seniors Juaquin Iglesias, Manuel Johnson and Quentin Chaney.

“We have some guys whose roles are going to change,” receivers coach Jay Norvell said. “There’s some guys who we’re going to expect more from.”

It is the natural progression of college football.
Upperclassmen leave and younger versions step up to take their place.

In some ways that was apparent in 2008. Ryan Broyles got his shot and showed he has a hefty load of playmaking ability. The local product from Norman High School tied the program’s freshman record for receptions with 46 and set the freshman record for receiving yards with 687.

But in some ways, he still played in the shadow of Iglesias and Johnson. That, however, won’t be the case this year.

“I just don’t think Broyles can come off the field like he did last year,” Norvell said. “He’s got to be on the field more. He can’t come off because he’s one of our most dynamic guys, so if we have two running backs on the field then he can’t afford to be on the sidelines. He’s got to play outside for us.”

Outside receivers are the pillars of every offense. They are the ones matched up with cornerbacks and the ones who must exploit man-to-man coverage on the outside.

When they’re winning their one-on-one match-ups, defenses are forced to spread out. Safeties get wider. The middle of the field becomes less congested and offense basically can use the entire field.

Broyles understands this as well as anyone.

“There’s always one-on-one — most of the time it’s one-on-one with the DB and sometimes you have a safety and linebacker in front of you so there’s definitely opportunity (to make catches in the open field),” he said. “In the slot, I was always having to deal with bigger guys. I think it will be a lot easier for me on the outside with guys more my size.”

Broyles isn’t big — 5-foot-11, 175 pounds — by any wide receiver standards. But he is crafty with the ball and incredibly elusive when he gets into the open field.

And he won’t be alone. Someone else gets the fill the void in the slot.

That leaves room for more production from Brandon Caleb on the interior. Last season, Caleb was close to making a breakthrough. He was one of the Sooners’ better special teams performers after the coaching staff went with a starter only approach late in the season.

With Iglesias, Johnson and Broyles logging as many snaps as possible, there just wasn’t room for Brandon Caleb, or anyone else, in the rotation.

“We had some veteran guys,” Norvell said of the situation. “We played a lot more guys earlier than we did down the stretch. Down the stretch, we just kind of played four guys and we just kind of played with it.”

Norvell wouldn’t mind doing the same thing again in 2009. It will mean the Sooners discovered four solid receivers. The lightning-fast pace of the no-huddle offense didn’t seem to have an effect on the receivers. Most will be in their second full season running it.

One player who could have a big impact is junior college receiver Cameron Kenney, who signed with OU in February but didn’t get here until the summer.
“When Cameron Kenney gets here, we’ll see what he can do,” said Norvell. “It’ll depend (on his progression). I think Brandon Caleb will have a much bigger role (early).”

Another player OU fans are more familiar with could also play a big role at slot receiver. Mossis Madu spent the entire spring working in the slot and he’s shown over the past two seasons at running back he has capable hands and plenty of playmaking ability in the open field.

Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson loves to create matchup problems with his personnel. He believes being able to use Madu in both a two-back and three-receiver scheme can cause some headaches for defenses.

“We’re trying to teach him to be not just a running back that plays receiver, but a very competent receiver who is on the field more that we can still kick back in at running back,” Wilson said. “We’re trying to get him to that point and he’s done pretty good.”

The decisions at slot receiver are solidified because Adron Tennell, Dejuan Miller and Jameel Owens will all be outside receivers going into fall camp.

Tennell, a senior and two years removed from a torn ACL, showed the in the spring he’s very capable of becoming a formidable weapon in OU’s arsenal. Many figured he would have broke into the upper echelon of OU’s receivers corps at least a year ago. The 6-foot-4 Tennell has the size of Malcolm Kelly with a little more speed.

But injuries have limited his progress.

Norvell hopes 2009 will finally be the year stays healthy.

“He kind of went down and his ankle was bothering him and I told him he wasn’t allowed to get hurt,” said Norvell. “You can’t get hurt. I think guys go through different stages of their roles and his role is changing. Guys are depending on him to play a lot more and be productive, and the same thing with Broyles.”

OU coach Bob Stoops thought Tennell had the most productive spring of any receiver. He caught a touchdown pass from Bradford in the Red-White Game and saw the kind of veteran consistency the coaching staff hoped to see.

“He is really starting to step up and make plays consistently,” Stoops said.

Tennell left the spring as a very confident player. When asked if OU could continue scoring a record amount of points, he was blunt.

“We’re not going to slip,” he said. “We’re going to be at the same level we were last year and the year before that.”

The emergence of Owens and Miller would greatly increase the chances of the Sooner offense once rolling like an unstoppable machine.

Both saw limited action as true freshmen, but both are the prototypes for outside receivers. Owens is 6-4 and Miller is 6-5. They’re both big targets who can run and win jump balls with cornerbacks.

“J.O. and Dejuan are young guys and they have to figure out how to play now,” said Norvell at the end of spring drills. “Their role has changed. That’s all part of it and those guys are getting a ton of reps. They’re learning how to compete every day and that’s kind of what spring is all about.

“We’ll find out what they do well and we’ll look at what we have offensively, and then you kind of build your plan off of that as you go through spring practice.”

Wilson liked what he saw from the tandem, but said the key will be how much they continue to improve.

“They need a bunch plays to keep coming. They’re talented guys, but they’re still learning. They’re hesitant and unsure,” Wilson said. “There’s a lot of upside on where they can get to if we can keep them coming this summer.”

No matter what, the Sooners will enter practice in August knowing full well what they have at receiver. Jaz Reynolds (6-3, 182) is the only freshman receiver in the 2009 signing class.

The lack of experience at receiver doesn’t bother Bradford. He’s been throwing to the group since January and he has no reservations with their ability.

“We’ve spent a lot time — this winter especially — running routes and doing a lot of seven on seven to get some timing down,” he said. “We’ve been able to get on the same page and I’m real comfortable with those guys.”

Outside of the coaches, Bradford’s opinion is the only one that really matters. Last season made it very clear what can happen when a quarterback gets in synch with receivers. First downs and touchdowns start piling up in a hurry.

It’s happened to last two seasons at OU. Some of the names and even positions may have changed, but OU believes it has talented receivers capable of extending the tradition of its high-flying offense.

(Editor's Note: This story appears in Sooner Spectator's 2009 Football Preview Issue: To subscribe, call toll free 1-877-841-8877 or go to our webstore page)