From a distance, it looks the simplest play an offense can run. Get a tall receiver isolated on a shorter cornerback and let nature take its course. With the right receiver, the jump-ball is the most exploitable weapon in an offensive arsenal.
Oklahoma wide receiver Jeffery Mead grasps the physics. He’s 6-foot-5. If he told you he was a Power 5 Conference basketball player, you wouldn’t doubt him.
One of his goals heading into his senior season is to utilize that lean body to its full effect.
“I’m now getting better at the jump-ball,” Mead said. “I felt like that was my biggest weakness last year. I made some good competitive catches in the bowl game, but I need to be better on the vertical balls. If I can’t catch a vertical ball, then what do you want me for?”
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There’s a reason NFL teams clamor around tall receivers. Personnel evaluators discuss “catch radius” as much as speed. They want players who can defy coverage.
“Some guys have it because some guys are just natural ball catchers. It is something that you can develop,” outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons said. “Jeff is an example of someone we have developed.
Mead is one of four wide receivers the Sooners have that are 6-3 or taller. Tight end Mark Andrews is 6-5.
But there’s art to coming down with the balls that go beyond size and skill. Variables are immense.
Television doesn’t do justice to all the things a wide receiver gauges when the ball goes in the air. A defensive back tugging at a receiver's arms, shoulders and even hips is easy to see — especially on replays.
It is Oklahoma — where the wind comes sweeping down the plains. A 45-yard pass can blow 10 yards left or right in a cross wind. Those passes into the wind seem to drop straight down when the descent begins.
Imagine trying to calculate all the ingredients in the middle of a full-out sprint. Then try to look back over your shoulder. There are times that the first glimpse is into the sun or the glowing lights that illuminate the field. There’s also the matter of a wearing a nearly five-pound helmet with a face mask.
“There are so many different factors. It rarely comes down to just out-jumping a guy," Mead said. "A lot of it is timing and knowing all the factors around you.”
The analysis is not a problem for Mead. The finance major understands how to calculate variables. But there’s a feel to becoming a habitual jump-ball winner. Mead is still working on that part.
He started eight games last season. The 10 catches for 150 yards and three touchdowns were all career highs for Mead. Most of those catches were outside of the numbers. But they weren’t those bombs that change games. Dede Westbrook caught the bombs last season. For the most part, it was him running by a defender and quarterback Baker Mayfield hitting him in stride.
Big receivers widen the margin of error. They can get their hands to places defensive backs cannot.
“For a guy his size, it fits his natural ability,” Simmons said. “It’s something he’s gotten a little better at, but it’s something you have to constantly work at.”
The work comes daily. Crossing routes and out routes are offensive staples. The deep balls are the ones every receiver on the Sooners’ roster yearns for and Mayfield loves to throw.
“There are other routes in our system that we run,” Simmons said. “But it’s the one that if you perfect it that it’s hard to stop.”