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Oklahoma has become known for bringing in and turning out the nation's best wide receivers
When Lincoln Riley was hired by Bob Stoops to revamp Oklahoma's offense in January of 2015, he gave Riley autonomy.
Autonomy to run the offense the way he wanted.
Autonomy to hire who he wanted for the additional assistant job that was left open after Stoops fired both Riley's predecessor, Josh Heupel, and Jay Norvell after a disappointing 8-5 season.
Riley brought aboard Dennis Simmons, who he'd coached with both at Texas Tech and East Carolina.
"I still remember how important that was to me," said Riley. "To have some guys in the room that I had been in the fire with. It also showed me that the head coach was very invested in where we were going. Not just simply by hiring me, and saying, 'OK, we're going to run this system and do that.' But when he's willing to do that for you, it shows you’re completely all in."
That decision to bring in Simmons as the outside receivers coach and the complementary decision to move longtime running backs coach Cale Gundy to coach the inside receivers -- along with Riley's dynamic offense and an otherworldly string of quarterbacks -- have combined to bring around a golden age of wide receivers not only at Oklahoma, but helped build to a historic recruiting class at the position in 2019.
But first, a look at the buildup to that class.
Over the last 11 years, Oklahoma has gone through a string of top-flight wide receivers.
Before Juaquin Iglesias' 1,150-yard season in 2008, the Sooners had had just two 1,000-yard receiving seasons -- Eddie Hinton in 1968 and Mark Clayton in 2003.
But since then, the Sooners have had nine receivers top the mark, including a first last season when two -- Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb -- eclipsed the mark.
A big part of that run was landing Ryan Broyles in 2007. Broyles was largely recruited as a defensive back and had been committed to Oklahoma State before flipping back and forth in the days before signing day, finally landing with the Sooners.
Unsurprisingly, Gundy was right in the middle of things.
Gundy has headed up OU's recruiting efforts for most of his long tenure in Norman, and has been an incredibly effective recruiter -- especially at the running back position where he spent his time as a coach up until Riley’s arrival.
Gundy has helped the Sooners land players like Adrian Peterson, DeMarco Murray, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. But he's also branched out beyond his position responsibilities frequently.
That included Broyles, who Gundy helped convince the night before signing day to stay home in Norman instead of heading up the road to Stillwater.
It wound up being a fruitful decision by both parties, as Broyles became the NCAA’s all-time leader in career receptions during his four-year stay at OU.
At the end of Broyles' tenure, Kenny Stills took over as the featured receiver. Stills was one of the greatest recruiting wins of Norvell's tenure in Norman, helping build a recruiting pipeline to California that has continued.
The Sooners hadn't ventured to the state much before then, but in the wake of signing Stills, Brennan Clay and Tony Jefferson that season, California has become a critical place for OU.
In recent years, Oklahoma has pulled Mixon, Curtis Bolton, Dru Samia, Caleb Kelly and Grant Calcaterra from the state.
Stills has also had the best pro career of any Oklahoma wide receiver of the Stoops era.
In 2012, Norvell also brought in another local receiver prospect when Sterling Shepard signed.
That wasn't quite the recruiting coup that Broyles and Norvell were, as Shepard was destined to head to Oklahoma from a young age, thanks to his father’s starring rise from a walk-on with the Sooners and the way Stoops and his staff watched after Shepard following Derrick Shepard's 1999 death at just 35.
Shepard blossomed into a star even before Riley's arrival, but it was his 2015 season in Riley’s offense and with Baker Mayfield at quarterback, that helped lift the Sooners to an even higher level of productivity at the position.
Sure, Riley's offense and the play of first Mayfield and then Kyler Murray played huge roles in Oklahoma's offensive explosion over the last four seasons, but the Sooners have also brought on a string of wide receivers that have been among the best ever in Norman.
Just before Norvell departed, he helped sign junior college receiver Dede Westbrook. The Sooners needed a quick injection of talent at the position after struggling to develop much depth behind Shepard, as players like Dannon Cavil, Dallis Todd and others had failed to fully blossom in Norman.
Westbrook immediately became a strong No. 2 behind Shepard during that 2015 season, and the next season he became Oklahoma's first Biletnikoff Award winner with 1,524 yards and 17 touchdowns.
The Sooners once again struck gold on the juco market by signing Marquise Brown in December 2016.
The biggest storyline when Brown arrived on campus was his diminutive stature but during the second half of his sophomore season he showed he could overcome that with uncommon speed and developed into one of the best deep-ball threats in college football.
Brown seemed destined to bring another Biletnikoff to Norman but injuries -- and the emergence of Lamb as another top-flight receiving option -- instead made him a part of the most dangerous receiving duo in Oklahoma history.
In 2019, it will be Lamb headlining what could be the deepest group the Sooners have ever had at the position.
This year’s class came together in fits and starts.
In February 2017, the Sooners got commitments from both five-star Theo Wease and four-star Arjei Henderson.
But a little more than two months later, both Wease and Henderson decommitted.
Then in September of that year, five-star receiver Trejan Bridges announced his decision to commit to the Sooners.
As Oklahoma ramped up for the 2018 spring game, the coaches got big news when both Wease and Henderson made the decision to recommit to the Sooners.
When Henderson decommitted again in late November, it appeared there was a good chance the Sooners would sign just the two wide receivers -- Bridges and Wease -- plus four-star tight end Austin Stogner.
That was still a pretty good haul.
Since 2002, when Rivals began its current rankings system, the Sooners had signed only two five-star wide receivers.
And both of those were the same person -- Trey Metoyer in 2011 and 2012.
Now, Oklahoma was doubling that haul in one class.
Though they lost Henderson -- who eventually signed with Florida -- it was the second time in recent years that the Sooners had signed a receiver who had decommitted from OU earlier in the process. Lamb also re-committed to the Sooners and eventually signed after decommitting.
"We try not to get too emotionally up or down," said Riley. "Recruiting is like a game. You can’t get down in the first quarter and lose your mind. You have to keep playing and keep swinging. At times, when someone decommits it may be the right thing and you don’t pursue them.
Other times, you decide you still want to recruit and they still want you to recruit them. It's just a bump in the road but not the end.
"We've been able to keep our poise in those situations and continue to have the belief that our place is the best place for them."
But the Sooners weren't done yet, as yet another five-star came aboard in January.
Jadon Haselwood had been a longtime Georgia commitment, having grown up in Ellenwood, Georga, about 75 miles from Athens.
But Haselwood's dad grew up in Oklahoma City as an OU fan, and when he decommitted in October, the door was open for the Sooners to pull Haselwood out of the southeast.
The December signing period passed without Haselwood having signed, but at the All-American Bowl in San Antonio in early January, Haselwood announced his decision to join Riley’s program.
A week later, he was enrolled and on campus.
At the time of Wease's signing, he was the highest-rated recruit the Sooners had signed since No. 1 overall Adrian Peterson in 2004. Haselwood eclipsed Wease's final ranking.
"It is unique," Riley said of this recruiting haul at receiver. "Physically, all of them are good enough to play and be able to help you soon. We thought they would be and they are. Mentally, how do they continue to prepare? How do they handle their bodies? How do they handle all the transitions?
"There's still a lot of question marks out there on these guys. But there’s no doubt the capability is there."
(This story appears in the April-May 2019 issue of Sooner Spectator. To get more information, call 405-364-4515)