NORMAN — Jordan Smallwood thought initially he could keep his tears from flowing on senior day.
“I’m gonna hold it all in,” he said.
Then, he backtracked a little.
“I’m gonna try,” the redshirt senior receiver added.
No. 4 Oklahoma’s regular-season finale against West Virginia (2:45 p.m. Saturday, ESPN) will include layers of emotions, especially with redshirt senior quarterback Baker Mayfield playing his final game at Owen Field, too.
And while Mayfield is a critical piece to OU’s 32-5 record the past three seasons, a number of other veterans’ unique journeys will begin closing.
A year ago, Smallwood completed just his second full season since coming to OU when he played in all 13 games and made his first career start.
A fractured bone in his lower leg as a freshman and an anterior cruciate ligament tear the summer before his sophomore season relegated him to smaller roles.
This season he has 10 catches — a single-season career high — and is one of OU coach Lincoln Riley’s proven options in goal-line situations.
Jet sweeps to Smallwood have resulted in two short touchdown runs, the only scores of his career. One TD helped the Sooners pull away in a 31-16 victory against then-No. 2 Ohio State.
“Each year I’ve always had a role, whether it was beginning playing scout team, whether it was getting in a couple plays on special teams the next couple years, catching a couple passes,” Smallwood said. “Now, just doing everything I can for the team, it’s been awesome. It’s just been a blessing, like I said. I don’t take nothing for granted.”
Player development is critical in every program.
No OU senior has made a bigger leap since his freshman season than defensive end/linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. Early in his career, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops and others on staff wondered about his maturity and commitment to improving.
Since, Okoronkwo has blossomed into a potential first-round NFL draft pick. He is 16th nationally with eight sacks and CBS Sports ranked him as the nation’s No. 14 prospect in its latest mock draft.
“I feel like I’ve done a 180,” Okoronkwo said. “It’s been a long time, you know. Just learned a lot more, understood the game more, the nuances of everything. Just how to be a more responsible person.”
It has been an adventurous four seasons those whose careers began in 2014, which turned into a fractured 8-5 season with two home losses and a 40-6 blowout ending to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
The program ascended from there. It won back-to-back Big 12 championships and worked through an historic transfer of power when OU’s winningest coach in history, Bob Stoops, stepped down to make way for Lincoln Riley’s era.
“There’s definitely a lot of things that went on. I wasn’t expecting to get here and go 8-5, but I was part of that team, played in a lot of games. … It’s definitely going to be a memory to see, this is where I started and this is where we finished,” senior safety Steven Parker said.
Parker hasn’t missed a start since the beginning of his sophomore season, but not every upperclassmen has enjoyed that consistency.
At one time or another, injuries have slowed defensive end D.J. Ward and safety Will Johnson. Cornerback Jordan Thomas has experienced ups and downs. Linebacker Emmanuel Beal leads the Sooners in tackles (70) after arriving an undersized junior college transfer.
All are regular starters now.
“We really hung in together to make it to this point,” Mike Stoops said. “It’s been a great group of seniors.”
Many exit OU’s program as maturing adults, which is certainly applicable in Smallwood’s case.
He and his fiancé recently welcomed a baby into the world. They’ll be in the group of loved ones on hand to watch Smallwood make his curtain call Saturday.
Smallwood will attempt to hold the tears in.
“But I know if I do cry it’s going to be worth it,” he said. “I have a reason to cry and a reason to tear up. I thank God for it and I thank Him for all the opportunities being here for five years, with the injuries and everything just to come out on top with two Big 12 championship rings and a couple bowl game wins.
“So, hopefully we can finish out with a bang and come out on top and just take game by game and hopefully get four wins and be on top of the world.”