NORMAN – Somebody has to step up. Somebody has to make plays. The Oklahoma Sooners receiving corps has heard the words of semi-warning, semi-motivation from quarterback Baker Mayfield since the spring.
The receivers are the weak link in the Oklahoma offense. The Sooners won’t be as good without Sterling Shepard in the lineup. The wideouts have heard the doubters after the departure of Oklahoma’s top receiver, who was responsible for 29.5 percent of Oklahoma’s total catches last year and 33.9 percent of the Sooners’ total receiving yards over the last two years.
They are listening to the prior and ignoring the latter.
“That’s not something we’re focused on,” Oklahoma tight end Mark Andrews, who is considered the No. 2 option in the passing game. “As a receiver group, I think we’re a really hungry group. We have a chip on our shoulders, not because of that, but because we want to play at a high level. . . . Everyone is going to be able to see what we can do.”
Jarvis Baxter has stepped up through the first few days of camp, according to offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, and has taken over the vocal leadership role that Shepard vacated. Top receiver Dede Westbrook continues to lead by example.
Graduate transfer Geno Lewis has brought professionalism to the young group, which includes no players with more than one full year of competitive game experience at the FBS level.
“This is a new group,” Lewis said. “This is a new team, and guys want to come out here and prove themselves to show they have the capability to do what Sterling did. That should be everybody’s mentality to get better every day and to help this team win.”
Riley said that having a receiver like Shepard, who could get open on any play, wasn’t a curse because he occupied the ball. Shepard was far more helpful because of how he – and Durron Neal – bought into the new offensive system in their final year and set the stage for the younger receivers.
The table is now clear and re-set for the next group.
“I think they sense that,” Riley said. “I think they sense that there will be more opportunities. We want to be a more well-rounded group. In a perfect world, we won’t have a guy that maybe we throw it to that high of a percentage of time. . . . Through development of the offense, as we go through these years in recruiting, I think we’re going to be a more well-rounded group and tougher to defend.”
Baxter looks to take on a bigger role, and Westbrook acknowledged the size of the shoes he has to fill this season, saying that he prepared all last year for it. Lewis has played both inside and outside, something Shepard did most of his career at Oklahoma.
“We’re more than motivated,” Westbrook said. “When we go out there, we don’t think about those things. We think about just getting better each and every day. But we are going to do what we have to do to be great.”
There wasn’t a one-on-one matchup that Shepard didn’t win last year for Oklahoma. A big portion of the Sooners’ success will rely on winning those one-on-one battles again – especially with Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon in the backfield.
It doesn’t always have to be the same player consistently, but some one has to consistently win.
“It’ll be huge. It will be one of the deciding factors for us,” Riley said. “. . . We’re going to get some opportunities with guys one-on-one like that. If we can win those battles, we feel like we will be tough to defend.”