The reason for the uncertainty was hardly a mystery. The junior slot receiver was charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession in Norman earlier this month. He has a court date set for Jan. 8 in Cleveland County to face the charge.
However, it was OU coach Bob Stoops’ punishment that was the conundrum. OU practiced throughout the month, but there was no word on whether Saunders would play against Texas A&M in Friday’s AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic.
“Honestly, I don’t know, to be honest. It was kind of a messed up deal, but I honestly didn’t know if I was gonna play or not,” Saunders said Sunday at Cowboys Stadium.
The uncertainty ended on Friday — the day before the Sooners left for Texas and the day Saunders was scheduled to fly to Dallas from his Elk Grove, Calif., home.
Stoops decided he will play.
The coach won’t comment beyond the statement he released on Friday. Receivers coach Jay Norvell deferred any questions about Saunders’ status to Stoops.
The rationale for why Saunders will be on the field can be debated. The fact OU’s offense will be much more explosive because of Saunders’ inclusion in the game plan cannot.
Saunders has only played in eight games this season. During that span, he’s been OU’s best receiver and, arguably, its best player.
It’s doubtful the Sooners would be playing in a major bowl game if Saunders didn’t close the regular season with three straight 100-yard games. Where would it be without Saunders’ 89-yard punt return for a touchdown against Oklahoma State?
No one knows for sure, but it’s become very obvious over the five years that OU’s offense goes from fast to furious when it has dangerous slot receivers. The productivity before and after former All-American wide receiver Ryan Broyles was injured last season illustrated the point.
What OU’s done since Saunders entered the lineup against Texas showed it as well.
It averaged more than 41 points per game. The only loss was against Notre Dame ,and Saunders hauled in 15 passes for 181 yards against the top-ranked Fighting Irish.
Norvell freely admits he was hoping Saunders would be a Broyles clone when he was recruiting him last spring. Saunders, who was an All-WAC selection after his sophomore season at Fresno State, was looking for an offense he could flourish in.
“We needed to fill that with a really quality guy that had a great feel and was able to run routes and make plays. We showed him a lot of that. I think we showed him every one of Ryan’s catches,” Norvell said. “He’s a real smart, tough kid and a really good football player;.I knew that when he came here. He’s an excellent route runner — a clean, fast, explosive route runner. He’s done very good with that for us.”
What happens over the next year will show how many traits Saunders truly shares with Broyles. Saunders isn’t the only player to get in legal trouble over an off-the-field mistake. Broyles had to redshirt his freshman season because he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor larceny charge.
Four years later, OU had no problems calling Broyles the model it looked for in its program.
Saunders believes he has the same characteristics.
“Of course. I’m the type of person … I’m not gonna make the same mistake twice,” Saunders said. “It’s a learning experience. I’m over it. I’m past it.”
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