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Next Step
Shepard leads group of former OU standouts into the NFL

Sterling Shepard celebrated in a Giant way, and Charles Tapper’s smile was as big as Dallas. Nothing for Zack Sanchez was finer than being drafted by Carolina. And Devante Bond is money as a Buc.
But for the Oklahoma Sooners, the 2016 NFL Draft was almost as much about who didn’t get drafted as who did.

As usual, Eric Striker stole the show.
Like he did frequently on the football field, like he did in the Sugar Bowl, like he did during the SAE racism scandal — Eric Striker captured Sooner Nation’s hearts when he went undrafted and stood up in front of a room full of family and friends — and poured out his heart.

“This is what we’re here to celebrate,” Striker began as the three-day event wound down, his voice shaking and ESPN’s cameras rolling. “Now, I’m gonna get my shot — drafted or not. You know how I’ve been my whole life. I had to prove it at Armwood (High School), when (Jarriet) Buie got hurt. Did I let it go? Never let it go. … I went to college, Coach Mike (Stoops) didn’t believe (in) me and I proved myself.”

It was a very emotional moment for Striker and his supporters.

“I’m so happy. … Don’t get caught up in the NFL, because we know the sun will rise on it,” Striker continued as the tears welled. “There’s so much potential for me and I’m so happy for everyone to share this moment. I’m crying because I’m happy that all of y’all came to share this with me.”

Striker did get his shot, signing as a free agent with the Buffalo Bills. Rex Ryan, it seems, thinks a lot of undersized Sooners with a history of big plays and even bigger hearts (he brought smallish wideout Jalen Saunders to the New York Jets, remember).

“When people say ‘You can’t, you can’t, you can’t,’ and then you do, then it’s, ‘Why do those people say that?’ ” Striker said during his introductory press conference in Buffalo. “Maybe it’s something in them that makes them think that I can’t do it. But it’s all about heart. The biggest guy on the field has to have heart. It felt good in high school and good in college to be successful on the field.

“My heart drives me more than anything.”

Ryan said that trait stands out.

“When we saw him on tape,” noted Ryan, “that’s what we loved about him. He made plays. I don’t care what he was doing, that dude was making plays.”

Striker was one of six former Sooners who got free agent deals after the draft. Linebacker Dominique Alexander went to the Cleveland Browns, center Ty Darlington went to the Tennessee Titans, guard Nila Kasitati went to the Washington Redskins, and wide receiver Durron Neal and linebacker Frank Shannon both landed with the Denver Broncos.

That only four Sooners were drafted — Shepard was first, going 40th overall (ninth in the second round) to New York — seems on the low side.

But then the Oklahoma PR department dug up this gem: OU is one of only two programs to have at least four players taken in the NFL Draft every year since 2008. LSU is the other.

All four Sooners drafted seem to have landed in ideal spots.

In New York, Shepard can be a complementary slot receiver to Odell Beckham and Victor Cruz.

“Eli Manning, Odell Beckham and Victor Cruz are guys I’ve looked up to for a long time,” said Shepard. “I can’t wait to be a part of the organization and call myself a Giant. I know they have die-hard fans there, similar to Oklahoma. I just can’t wait to get out there and go to work.”

The Giants organization is excited, too.
“That’s one of the names that came up, a young Victor Cruz,” said Giants general manager Jerry Reese. “Very similar in some ways, body type. The one thing about this kid is he’s 5-10 and some change, but his strike zone is bigger than that. He’s got a 41-inch vertical jump, he’s got big hands. He’s a tenacious slot receiver, runs after the catch. Get the ball to him quick and he does some nice things after the catch, as well.”

Shepard's late father, former Sooner wideout Derrick Shepard, played five seasons in the NFL (1987-91) with the Redskins (he was on Washington’s Super Bowl champion in 1987), New Orleans Saints and Cowboys.

“The offense they run at Oklahoma, he runs all the routes,” said Giants VP of player evaluation Marc Ross. “Unlike some of the college systems now where they run up the field and just turn around, this guy runs an NFL route tree.”

In Dallas, Tapper has a chance to be an impact defensive end right away. He started 38 of his final 39 games at OU and was a two-time first-team All-Big 12 pick.
He was the 101st pick overall, No. 3 in the fourth round.

“I wasn’t really expecting to get drafted real early in the fourth round,” said Tapper. “I was just going to go with the flow and see how it played out. As the Cowboys were coming up, I was like, 'Man, I hope the Cowboys pick me. That would be a great place for me playing that 5 technique, and they say they need a lot of help.’

“I was sitting on the couch and the phone started ringing. I was like, ‘Uh oh.’ I saw the call was from Arlington, Texas, and when I answered it was Mr. Jerry Jones. Immediately, there was just so much relief.

Everything was just finally off my back. It was like the greatest feeling ever. I didn’t really have any idea that Dallas liked me that much. Indianapolis and Arizona had shown a lot of interest, so I thought I’d go to one of those teams. But when Dallas called I was just so happy. I feel like that’s just the best place for me.”

Dallas coach Jason Garrett believes Tapper can help improve the Cowboys’ pass rush.

“Athletically,” said Garrett, “we certainly feel like he is a defensive end candidate for us, and a right end candidate. Pass rush guy; he is an outstanding athlete. A lot of basketball in his background growing up, and we do think that the way that we play, the scheme that we run and the style of defense that we run, will feature some of the physical traits that he has. He plays the right way (and) he seems like an outstanding character guy.”

Sanchez, too, should be a good fit as an outside corner or nickel back in Carolina, where he was the 141st overall pick (No. 2 in the fifth round).

The Panthers were Super Bowl runner-up last year and are established, but clearly show they’re in the market for good young players. Sanchez is a fast corner with excellent coverage instincts and a nose for the football. He started all 37 career games at OU and ranks fourth in OU history with 15 career interceptions. He also was a two-time first-team All-Big 12 player.

“Carolina showed me the most interest throughout this whole process, so it wasn’t surprising to be picked by them,” said Sanchez. “To fall that late was kind of surprising, but everything happens for a reason.

“It’s exciting with them coming off a Super Bowl appearance and believing in me to be one of the guys to make plays in the back end. It’s just an exciting opportunity. The spot’s there. I just have a lot of work to do and I want to be a part of something special. It’s just been a really cool experience.”

Panthers GM Dave Gettleman clarified Sanchez’ likely role in a draft where he selected three cornerbacks in all.

“Of the three guys, Zack would be the one who might potentially work (inside),” said Gettleman. “He’ll work inside, I think that’s fair to say for sure. We’ve got to find out. The thing about Zack is, like I said, he’s really instinctive. He really knows the game.”

Bond was widely regarded as the Sooners’ most NFL-ready player last season, and he’ll get a chance to prove it in Tampa Bay, where he went No. 183 overall, the eighth pick of the sixth round. Bond, a junior college transfer in 2014, missed four games with an injury during his senior year.

“I’m just definitely blessed and happy to be in the Tampa Bay organization,” said Bond. “I talked to them at the Combine, and I just feel happy and feel blessed to be where I’m at. They were just one of the teams that showed a lot of interest in me during the process. I know I’m going to be an outside ‘backer there. I plan on going there and trying to contribute on special teams early and go from there."

Bucs GM Jason Licht said Bond will be a strong side linebacker and described him as “heavy-handed and athletic; (a) great kid.”

“He’s also smart, versatile and a great pass rusher,” said Bob Stoops. “He plays with great hands and sheds blockers well. He’s only going to continue to improve at the next level.”

(Editor's Note: This story appears in the June issue of Sooner Spectator. To read more or subscribe, call 405-364-4515).