There will be an unfamiliar feel as Oklahoma’s offense takes the field this fall.
For the first time in four years, the Sooners won’t have Sterling Shepard to lean on in their passing attack. The 2012 UnderArmour All-American capped off his stellar collegiate career with 86 receptions for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior. Shepard finished his career with 233 receptions for 3,482 yards and 26 touchdowns in 50 career games (41 starts).
As Oklahoma aims to return to the College Football Playoff for a second straight season, the No. 1 receiver spot is a top priority for offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. Yet, Oklahoma may not end up with a bonafide No. 1 target. The Sooners don’t have a game-changing talent like Shepard, but Riley fully expects the group as a whole to be better during his second season in Norman.
“I’d be very disappointed if we’re not better,” Riley said. “It’s the second year [in this offense] for those guys.”
Shepard was the unquestioned focus of the passing game in 2015. He was targeted 119 times, with his 20 third-down receptions leading the Big 12 and his 30 third-down targets ranking fourth in the conference. The Oklahoma City native led the Sooners with a 72.3 receptions percentage and 2.5 drop percentage, making him a quarterback’s best friend, particularly in critical moments. In other words, Baker Mayfield's safety net is gone.
The Sooners are counting on the group as a whole to replace the production of Shepard. Instead of having one player with 48 more targets than any other receiver on the roster like they did in 2015, Oklahoma is looking to spread the love among its receiving targets in 2016.
“I think that group overall is just a lot stronger at this time than it was a year ago,” said coach Bob Stoops, while mentioning the names of A.D. Miller, Dahu Green, Michiah Quick and Jeffery Mead as receivers who have improved since last season.
Reigning Big 12 offensive newcomer of the year Dede Westbrook will be counted on to make more big plays as the leading returning receiver on the roster (46 receptions, 743 yards, four touchdowns). Penn State transfer Geno Lewis should step in to provide an immediate boost. Meanwhile tight end Mark Andrews should be ready for an expanded role after becoming a handful for defenses with his combination of size and playmaking along the hash marks during his redshirt freshman year. He has the potential to replace some of the big plays that could be missing in Shepard's absence.
"I don't think I'll be taking on the hidden-weapon-type role like I did last year,” said Andrews, who had 19 receptions for 318 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015. “I'll definitely be more involved more frequently in this year's offense. Any time I can get on the field and show what I can do is what I want. That's what I came here for and I'm ready to get the season started and make some plays.”
The Sooners' spring game could have been a glimpse at the plan to spread the ball around more, with Westbrook, Quick and Miller tying for the game high in receptions with four apiece. All told, eight different pass catchers had at least two receptions in the spring game.
“I think the overall group will have more guys in the rotation that will be productive,” Stoops said. “[They have] another full year of understanding what we want them to do and another year of maturity.”
Shepard, Westbrook, Durron Neal and Jarvis Baxter were the main receivers in Oklahoma’s rotation in 2015. That number could double with Westbrook and Baxter returning along with the development of the young receivers and addition of Lewis.
“Will we have one player that’s as good as Sterling? I don’t know,” Riley admits. “[But] as a whole we can be a more consistent group, more explosive group all around.”