Jalen Saunders plays it cool when asked about his first-quarter catch for a touchdown in the 2014 Sugar Bowl.
Facing third-and-5 and lining up in the slot, Saunders ran an eight-yard out route, reached over the pylon and scored with a defender draped over him. But it wasn't just any defender. It was Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, considered one the top safeties in this year's draft class.
"It was just another defender to me," said Saunders at the NFL Combine. "I look at everybody the same."
Saunders later scored another touchdown on a 43-yard go route, giving the defender a brief hesitation move and then blew by him down the field. That defender? Deion Belue, another draft-caliber prospect that should also hear his named called in the NFL Draft, a little over a week away.
All told, Saunders had five receptions for 75 yards that evening as Oklahoma defeated 15-point favorite Alabama in one of the biggest upsets of the bowl season.
At just 5' 9" and 165 lbs. Saunders does most of his damage from the slot, but his diminutive stature couldn't prevent him from putting up back-to-back 60 catch seasons for the Sooners, earning a second-team All-Big 12 selection his senior year. He gets the job done with quickness, a burst that can leave onlookers trailing in his dust.
Saunders best season, however, arguably came as sophomore before transferring to Oklahoma, when he had just 50 receptions at Fresno State but averaged over 21 yards per catch, covering 1,065 yards and scoring 12 times through the air and an additional two on the ground.
After Pat HIll was fired at Fresno State, Saunders used the opportunity to transfer without sitting out a year to take a step up in competition, heading to Norman, Okla. and playing in a BCS conference.
In his final two seasons of eligibility, Saunders became a dangerous punt returner, scoring three touchdowns and averaging 15.0 yards per return over the course of his career.
The Packers interviewed Saunders while at the Senior Bowl during the offseason, and if they're looking for another slot receiver and return specialist to take pressure off Randall Cobb, perhaps they'll look Saunders' way as a potential late-round draft choice.
Whenever and by whomever Saunders is selected, he'll remember the lessons passed downed to him by his father to become the best player possible.
"He pushed me a lot," said Saunders. "He used to play college football at Idaho. He was always just pushing me to become the best person on the field and off the field.
"And it doesn't matter if I wanted to have a profession, become something else. If I wanted to become a doctor, he would push me to become the best doctor in the world. So he pushed me to be the best wide receiver."
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].
Photo: Oklahoma wide receiver Jalen Saunders by Brian Carriveau.
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