(Eds: With AP Photos.)By MURRAY EVANSAssociated Press
NORMAN, Okla. (AP) - Sterling Shepard has quite the Oklahoma football pedigree: son of a beloved star receiver for the Sooners who died just as his coaching career was starting to take off.
It wasn't that heritage or his considerable receiving skills that earned the sophomore wide receiver from Oklahoma City more playing time this season for No. 11 Oklahoma (4-0, 1-0 Big 12 Conference), which will host TCU (2-2, 0-1) on Saturday.
It was his willingness to block when his number wasn't called.
Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Josh Heupel called Shepard's performance in a 35-21 win at Notre Dame last Saturday ``as complete a game at the wide receiver position as we've had played around here in a long time.''
The 5-foot-10, 188-pound Shepard had five catches for 84 yards, including a critical 54-yard fourth-quarter touchdown reception, and joined fellow receiver Jalen Saunders in delivering numerous blocks that allowed Oklahoma ball carriers to gain more yards.
``He was just outstanding,'' coach Bob Stoops said of Shepard. ``What you don't see, unless you go back and watch the game again, is you should see the way he played without the football in this game. It's really fun to watch. The guy was blocking everywhere. Hustling. That's what I'm most proud of. He was outstanding when he didn't have the ball.''
Shepard came from the same high school, Heritage Hall, that produced Wes Welker, and one of his high school teammates was current Stanford running back Barry Sanders Jr. Shepard's father, Derrick Shepard, played for the Sooners from 1983-1986 - helping the Sooners win the 1985 national title - and played in the NFL for five seasons, winning a Super Bowl ring with the Washington Redskins in 1987.
He died from a heart attack in August 1999, one month into a new job as an assistant coach at Wyoming.
Sterling Shepard essentially grew up around the Oklahoma program and after he signed with the Sooners, he chose the same No. 3 that his father had worn. As a freshman, he showed flashes of promise, catching 45 passes for 621 yards and three touchdowns in limited appearances.
This year, he's playing almost every down and has caught 16 passes for 229 yards and three touchdowns. In a win over Tulsa, he set career highs with eight catches for 123 yards and two scores. Pictures of Shepard and his late father adorned the cover of the game program that day.
``I was thinking about that,'' Shepard said. ``They actually give us the program in our lockers before the game and I saw it. I told myself that, `This is me and my dad's day.' I tried to step it up.''
He did the same thing against Notre Dame. On a key third-down play early in the fourth quarter, just after the Fighting Irish had pulled within 27-21, Shepard caught a short pass from Blake Bell and outraced a pair of defenders into the end zone. He then caught a two-point conversion pass to build the Sooners' lead back to 14 points.
``Sterling's just great at getting open,'' Bell said. ``It kind of makes it easy for a quarterback. You saw that third down at Notre Dame. I just kind of put it on him in a little crossing route and he took it the rest of the way and showed his wheels. He does a great job getting open and is a real smart football player on the field.''
The blocks thrown by Shepard and Saunders even get their Oklahoma defensive teammates excited. Safety Gabe Lynn said blocking receivers pose problems for defenders.
``Little dudes like that that have attitudes just get on your nerves,'' Lynn said. ``Sometimes, you'd rather had a big, slow dude, because those little guys get on your nerves.''
The frustration of the first two weeks, when Oklahoma's passing game wasn't clicking, has given way to excitement as the Sooners return to conference play.
``I feel like I was comfortable in the first two games and it was just a matter of me getting in the film room a lot more and just upping my game a little bit,'' Shepard said. ``It was getting underneath my skin a little bit. It has happened to me before in my life. With those things, you just have to keep pushing and keep going and it will come to you. It did.''