Slot machine: Deion Burks offers OU a different kind of receiver

Slot machine: Deion Burks offers OU a different kind of receiver

Burks is a far different player than Drake Stoops, but the Purdue transfer's skill set offers something quite tempting for Jackson Arnold.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Apr 21, 2024, 12:00pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Apr 21, 2024, 12:00pm CDT

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NORMAN — On the second play of the OU spring game, Deion Burks sped in parallel to the line of scrimmage from his slot position and took a handoff from Jackson Arnold. Burks kept zipping toward the left sideline and ended up with a two-yard gain.

Sooner fans who grew quite frustrated with previous offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby’s jet sweeps had to let out a collective sigh: Here we go again, only with new coordinator Seth Littrell.

The exasperation should have been short-lived. Too much emphasis on the what, not enough emphasis on the who.

Two plays after Burks’ jet sweep, Arnold launched a deep, down-the-middle pass that Burks, streaking ahead of cornerback Kani Walker, hauled in on stride and turned into a 64-yard touchdown. 

Later in the first half Saturday, Burks again came out of the slot and ran a post pattern. This time, the Sooner secondary lost him and Burks ran free. The result was a 50-yard touchdown pass.

By halftime, his day done, Burks had five catches for 174 yards, and the Purdue transfer had served notice the 2024 Sooners would have a new kind of weapon: home-run potential from the slot.

The slot has been inhabited by Drake Stoops, who went from fan favorite to star, making all-Big 12 in 2023, when he led OU receivers in catches (84), yards (962) and touchdowns (10).

Stoops made tough catches and produced hidden yards with extra effort and savvy slivers. He occasionally could catch the defense sleeping and get open deep. But Stoops was not a routine long-ball threat.

Burks is.

“The ability to throw both underneath and deep, your coverages are affected,” Brent Venables said. “Who you’re matching things up with, whether it’s a quarter safety or a spin-down safety or it’s additional corner or whoever that additional defender is … your fifth DB. It makes the matchups a little more difficult when you’ve got somebody that can challenge you vertically as well as underneath.”

This is what the Sooners had to hope Burks would provide when he arrived from Purdue, where he led the Boilermakers in catches (47), receiving yards (629) and touchdown catches (seven). Those numbers aren’t prolific by OU standards. But Purdue, with Texas-ex Hudson Card as its quarterback, completed 76 fewer passes last season than the Sooners.

This is no indictment of Stoops. If Burks doesn’t duplicate Stoops’ penchant for getting open in tight situations, turning five-yard gains into seven and making clutch catches, Burks’ home runs will be no better than a wash.

“Again, Drake was a high-producing receiver,” Venables said. “It didn’t matter what you asked that guy to do, whether that was beat someone on an over route, get open on an underneath crosser, something like that, Drake would make all the competitive plays.

“We’ll need to continue to have that kind of production out of that position in order for us to be successful systematically.”

On Saturday, the Sooner wide receiving corps was missing Nic Anderson, Jalil Farooq, Andrel Anthony and Gavin Freeman. Come autumn, Burks might not be targeted as frequently.

Then again, while the OU pass-catching unit is deep, it does not yet have an established star. Burks looks capable of filling that role. He’s only 5-foot-9, 190 pounds, but his speed is difference-making.

“Deion is a special, special player,” Arnold said. “He’s one of the fastest kids I’ve thrown to. He knows how to get open — great route runner. He showed that ability today, and I’m proud of him.”

It’s been awhile since the Sooners had this kind of threat in the slot. Maybe going back to 2015 with Sterling Shepard.

“I hope to definitely keep playing that role of going deep,” Burks said. “I honestly love the scheme here.”

The transfer portal is here to stay. It’s become a major marketplace for building a roster and a team. As the Sooners try to stake their claim as a Southeastern Conference heavyweight, they have to hit the portal, and they have to hit in the portal. Venables and staff must bring in quality players, as well as signing, developing and retaining high-level high-school prospects.

Burks looks to be the kind of portal prize the Sooners need on a regular basis.

“He’s been fantastic,” Venables said. “Great playmaker. He’s got tremendous speed and quickness. He’s got great hands … he’s really done a great job of learning what to do and transitioning that within our system.”

Truth is, the 2024 OU offense looks inferior to the 2023 OU offense. Arnold will be hard-pressed to match Dillon Gabriel at quarterback. The offensive line is being rebuilt. Tailbacks could be better in ‘24, I suppose. Receivers look about the same.

But if Deion Burks can produce on screens and short crosses and quick slants anything close to what Drake Stoops did, plus add the long ball, the Sooners will have found a path to improvement.

 

 

 

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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