Two things immediately strike you about Jalen Saunders.
He’s not very big, barely 160 pounds with all his gear on, but he’s remarkably elusive and explosive.
Translation: If the Oklahoma Sooners’ senior wide receiver from Elk Grove is clobbered on a play by a charging linebacker, he may sail into the front row like a screaming foul ball. But good luck catching him. Mostly, Saunders, 5-foot-9 and 157 pounds, is a blur in the open field. This image played out plenty the past two seasons on receptions and special-teams return plays, capped by Thursday’s Sugar Bowl.
Saunders had two touchdown catches, both highlight-worthy, in the Sooners’ 45-31 upset victory over Alabama. And once again, he showed that little guys can play big in football, too.
“Always felt that way,” Saunders said Friday by phone. “Even if you don’t have size, you can make plays, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do.
“Size shouldn’t stop you from having a great work ethic, from wanting to be good. What’s the saying? Hard work beats talent any time? That’s a true statement.”
Saunders’ mixture of hard work and talent was evident in his Pleasant Grove High School days.
“I tell people who ask about Jalen that it’s very rare to have a kid who is your best player, your most talented player, also be your hardest worker,” Pleasant Grove coach Joe Cattolico said. “Of all the kids I’ve coached over 17 years, I don’t know if I’ve had anyone as talented and as hard-working as Jalen. And he’s a little dude who’s worked really hard.”
Saunders learned about work ethic from his father, Walt, who played college football at Idaho, and his uncle, Webster Slaughter, who was a wide receiver in the NFL. Both are mentors in a football family (Saunders’ kid brother Isaiah, also a Pleasant Grove graduate, is a running back at Idaho).
Cattolico was yelling at his TV in his Elk Grove home during the Sugar Bowl, swaying to the right or left as if to influence Saunders’ moves. Slaughter watched from his Houston home, and Saunders’ parents – Walt and Yolanda – took in the game from the noisy New Orleans Superdome.
Watching Saunders play can take your breath away. On one scary play in high school in 2008, though, a play took his breath away, and startled onlookers wondered if it would take his favorite game away, too.
On the last play of the half at Elk Grove High, Saunders was crushed on a deep play across the middle. He didn’t get up. Walt Saunders hustled out of the stands to tend to his son, who lay motionless for severalmoments at midfield. Saunders suffered a concussion, but he was back in motion within weeks.
“I remember the play,” Saunders said. “It happens, part of the game. I was never too worried about it, and I got back out there when I was ready. I didn’t want that to slow me down.”
An ankle sprain slowed him during his senior season in 2009, but he still had several highlight moments carrying, catching and returning the ball.
“He played long stretches with a bum wheel that he was dragging around, and it would’ve been easy for a kid at his level and ability to not play through pain, but he was a warrior for us,” Cattolico said.
Saunders accepted a scholarship to Fresno State, where he had a breakout season in 2011 with 1,065 receiving yards. After a coaching change, he transferred to Oklahoma
Again, his speed and work ethic helped pave the way.
“It just fit at Oklahoma,” Saunders said. “It’s all worked out great.”
Saunders had a school-record-tying 15 receptions against Notre Dame in his debut with the Sooners. He had 62 catches for 829 yards in 2012, and he had 654 yards and six touchdowns entering Thursday’s Sugar Bowl. Saunders also had a 91-yard punt return for a score to spark a 48-10 rout of Iowa. Against Oklahoma State, he scored on a 64-yard punt return and then won the game with a touchdown reception with 19 seconds left.
His Sooners career is over, but not his playing days. He has been invited to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., on Jan. 25, and he hopes to be invited to the NFL combine in February.
“Never satisfied,” Saunders said. “Can’t be. If I’m not getting better, then I’m getting worse, and someone else is getting better.
“I hope to keep playing. I know people will look at the size thing, but you can’t judge players just on size and height. Look at DeSean Jackson (of the Philadelphia Eagles). He’s a buck-55 (in weight), and he’s a Pro Bowl player. He makes big plays. He’s one of the fastest guys out there.
“It’s how guys our size are used. I’ll find a way.”