For nearly 30 years, Billy Brooks has carried the standard by himself, the lone wide receiver among 21 Oklahoma Sooners drafted in the first round since the NFL-AFL merger of 1970.
But Brooks, who was chosen by Cincinnati in 1976 and played seven mostly nondescript NFL seasons, catching just 96 passes and averaging but one touchdown per year, is about to get some company. Barring some unforeseen calamity, Mark Clayton, who notched 31 touchdown catches during his four seasons with the Sooners, will be chosen in the first round this year.
For a university whose rich football history has been constructed principally around a celebrated running game, a lineage that has produced three Heisman Trophy-winning tailbacks, Oklahoma is suddenly churning out big-time wide receivers. Under coach Bob Stoops, the Sooners play a wide-open spread offense and the emphasis on putting the ball in the air could put as many as four Oklahoma wide receivers in the '05 draft.
Clayton is clearly the class of the bunch, with a resume that includes 221 receptions for 3,241 yards in 52 games. A very quick player whose stopwatch speed was questioned by scouts before the Indianapolis combine, he enhanced his stock by running a 4.40 in the 40-yard dash. He owns the best single receiving season in Sooners history – with 83 catches for 1,425 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2003 – and might have been a first-round choice in 2004 had he opted to bypass his final season of eligibility.
While he doesn't fit the profile of the bigger wide receiver most teams now covet, the 5-foot-10 3/8 and 193-pound Clayton is silky smooth, runs precise routes, explodes in and out of his cuts, and is fearless over the middle.
But Clayton isn't the only high-round Sooners prospect at wide receiver.
"They've got as much collective talent at the position as any school has brought into the draft in a long time," Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said last month at the scouting combine. "Every time you looked up at one of the [workouts], it seemed like there was another Oklahoma wide receiver. Not that long ago, it was rare to see even one at the combine, and now they're all over the place."
That might be a bit of an overstatement, given that only three Sooners wideouts were invited to the combine, with Mark Bradley and Brandon Jones joining Clayton for the auditions in front of NFL scouts. But certainly those three, along with Will Peoples, comprise one of the most impressive receiving corps ever to represent a school in one draft.
League scouts, who once flocked to Norman, Okla., seeking running backs, blockers and run stuffers, have arrived there this offseason with wide receivers at the top of the must-see prospects list.
And with good reason.
Clayton, a sure-fire first-round pick even before he ran the 4.40 at the combine, is universally regarded as one of the top three pass catchers in the draft. The late-blooming Bradley, who blistered a 4.37, might have catapulted himself as high as the second round with recent workouts. Jones, who ran a 4.42, could be a first-day pick as well. Peoples, who runs in the 4.62 area, should be a late-round choice.
Oklahoma already has a first-round prospect for the 2006 draft in Travis Wilson, who notched 11 touchdown receptions last season.
Not bad, huh, for a school that has had only eight wide receivers chosen at all in the draft since 1970? In fact, the only time Oklahoma had two wide receivers chosen in the same draft over the last 35 years was in 1976. And here's a fact that, even given the lack of an aerial game before Stoops' arrival in 1999, is nonetheless mind-boggling: Oklahoma has not had a wide receiver taken at all in the draft since Denver picked Anthony Stafford in 1989 in the sixth round.
That's 15 consecutive drafts without an Oklahoma wide receiver being selected, an ignominious drought that will end shortly in a big way. The Sooners, who some have suggested could field a pretty respectable 4x100 relay sprint team with their wide receivers, definitely could fill an entire depth chart if some NFL franchise simply wanted to start from scratch at the position.
"We feed off each other, push each other, challenge ourselves," said Bradley, the son of former Oklahoma quarterback Danny Bradley, and inarguably one of the fastest rising players in the draft at any position. "We make each other better. When one of us makes a play, the rest of us are happy, but then we all want to make a play. It's like, 'OK, so now it's my turn.' I just don't know that any school, really, could stack up to us in terms of depth and talent at wide receiver. Years ago, like when my dad was playing there, well, it was all about running backs at OU. That's not the case anymore."
Indeed, in 2004, even with star freshman tailback Adrian Peterson, who likely will extend the number of Heisman-winning runners to four, the Sooners still had more passing yards than rushing yards. Over the past two seasons, 2003 Heisman Trophy quarterback Jason White threw for over 7,000 yards and 75 touchdowns.
Top-flight high school wide receivers, who once eschewed scholarship offers from OU because of the reliance on the running game, can't wait now for Stoops to come calling. The school that helped make the Wishbone offense and triple option famous, and which threw the ball sparingly, now views wide receivers as more than downfield blockers.
Under the guidance of Stoops, who wants his offense to be as much on the edge as his aggressive defenses have always been, and the stewardship of coordinator Chuck Long, the Sooners are definitely cutting edge. Receivers coach Darrell Wyatt is a guy that NFL scouts are phoning these days on a regular basis.
"We've changed the focus here now," Clayton said. "I mean, it used to be that, if you played wide receiver at OU, you might not have much of a chance to play in the NFL. But now, it seems that everything we do helps to get us ready for the next level."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.