In a mere eight days, we’ll finally be watching the 2018 Oklahoma Sooners! That’s just one week and a wake up, folks! For today’s Countdown to Kickoff episode, I’m going to highlight a trio of offensive skill players that each sported the number 8. I’m talking about quarterback Darrell Shepard, running back Dominique Whaley and receiver Jalen Saunders.
Kicking things off with the QB of the group, Darrell Shepard is the second of the Shepard family to play at Oklahoma. His older brother, Woodie, played before him, and his younger brother Derrick followed years later. As you might have already deduced, Darrell is the uncle of Sterling Shepard, the Sooners’ all-everything receiver who now plays for the New York Giants.
1981 Sun Bowl: first game against UH. Led by UH-transfer Darrell Shepard, Sooners scored 30 in the 4th to win 40-14 pic.twitter.com/85bvUIrIMS— Sooner Tracker (@SoonerTracker) September 1, 2016
Darrell grew up with his brothers in Odessa, Texas. He accepted an offer to Oklahoma in 1979, where he played sparingly for two seasons behind starting quarterback J.C. Watts. After Watts’ departure, the job was finally Shepard’s.
1981 was a bit of a rebuilding year for Barry Switzer and the Sooners. Using the popular and powerful wishbone offense, Shepard led Oklahoma to a 7-4-1 record, including a 40-14 win over Houston in the Sun Bowl. He wrapped up his career with 1,134 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. In addition, he also passed for 424 yards and three more scores.
Shepard was a fine runner in his own right, but Dominique Whaley ran with an attitude. The Lawton product began his college career at Langston University in Logan County.
After playing as a non-starter at LU, he decided to test his talents at the highest level of college football. In 2011, Whaley saw his chance and ran with it. Oklahoma didn’t have a definitive starter among its stable of backs, so the carries were there for the taking, even for a walk-on.
Right away, Whaley made his presence known. His low center of gravity combined with his quick burst made him tough to contain. He also possessed incredible balance, shrugging off feeble tackle attempts left and right. In the 2011 season opener against Tulsa, he set the school record for the most rushing yards (131) in a career debut, and he was just getting started.
The longest single rush of his career came later that season against Texas. In the middle of the third quarter, the Sooners were beating down the Longhorns in epic fashion. Then Dom Whaley put his stamp on the game and the rivalry with an electric 64-yard house call to effectively put an exclamation point on the dismantling of Bevo and company.
Whaley’s inaugural season was off to an amazing start by anyone’s standards, and he was still technically classified as a walk-on. Unfortunately, he suffered a severe leg injury in Week 9 against Kansas State, abruptly ending his historic season.
Whaley eventually earned a scholarship, and returned to the fold in 2012, but he was never quite the same. And with the emergence of Damien Williams, Whaley’s role in Oklahoma’s offense gradually faded. He finished his career that season with 870 yards on 152 carries and 10 TDs.
Staying in 2012, there was another Sooner with big-play ability, but you’d have to look down the field if you wanted to catch a glimpse of him. Jalen Saunders, a Stockton, California native, was one of Oklahoma’s greatest offensive weapons for two seasons, and he was equally stellar as a returner on special teams.
Jalen Saunders reacts after hearing his touchdown stands. BOOMER! pic.twitter.com/zpN8fWh3BL— Oklahoma Football (@OU_Football) November 16, 2013
Like Whaley, Saunders’ collegiate career didn’t begin in Norman. The receiver’s first stop was at Fresno State, but after a change in offensive philosophy, Saunders elected to transfer to a team that would maximize his skill-set. Goodbye Cali, hello OK.
Per transfer rules, Saunders was supposed to sit out the 2012 campaign, but after some back-and-forth with the NCAA, his waiver request for immediate eligibility was approved after four games into the season. Fortunately for the Sooners, that was just in time for the Texas game, which turned out to be a third consecutive win — and second consecutive thrashing — against the Longhorns.
Saunders was a reliable option as a receiver, but he was an absolute game-changer as a punt returner. Just ask Oklahoma State fans if they remember this...
8 days until #Sooners kickoff— Bryan Keating (@KOCOKeating) August 24, 2018
#8 Jalen Saunders was lightening for the Sooners as a receiver and returner. And @jalen6saunders is a Bedlam hero, scoring twice in 2013 including the game winner from Blake Bell. pic.twitter.com/Rg7FzN5VUa
It was a fitting end to Saunders’ Sooner career, as Oklahoma upset Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl with the help of the dynamic receiver’s 75-yard, two-touchdown performance. At Oklahoma, he totaled 1,558 receiving yards, 11 receiving scores, and three more TDs on punt returns. For his elite ability on special teams, he was named an All-Big 12 First Teamer (‘13).
The New York Jets selected Jalen Saunders in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. After a brief stint in East Rutherford, you can now find Saunders tearing it up in the CFL with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
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