The talk of the Sooner Nation in recent months has mostly been about the promising young talent on the roster, bolstered in a big way by the signing of #SoonerSquad17. Though Heisman candidate Baker Mayfield will return for one last season to lead the way, the defense will look to leadership from established senior stars Obo Okoronkwo, Steven Parker and Jordan Thomas. Looking to return to conference dominance with a switch back to a 4-3 front, a few seniors are now looking at a chance to be major contributors in their final seasons in Norman. And the offense certainly needs some familiar names to become household to make up for the departures of Oklahoma’s top three playmakers of 2016.
Here’s a look at which seniors could be on the verge of breakout seasons in 2017.
WR Jeffery Mead
There’s been some buzz around town that the most likely candidate to fill Dede Westbrook’s shoes could be the lanky Tulsa Union product Jeff Mead, although the more likely scenario is that OU will feature a pass-catching core by committee next season. Junior Mark Andrews could lead the way early while all the new faces on campus begin getting used to the grind of D-I college football, but Mead — already with a few highlight grabs last season — has a great chance to also step up as one of Mayfield’s new go-to targets with his experience in Lincoln Riley’s offense. The 6-5 jump-ball stud has displayed the ability to make tough catches and hang onto the football (sometimes an Achilles heel for Andrews) and possesses enough breakaway speed to go with his long open-field stride.
The Sooners’ offense will be loaded with young game-breaking playmakers, but Mead could be the most likely senior to step up big and perhaps audition his own way into next year’s draft. Coming in with only 16 receptions for 216 yards and four touchdowns through his three seasons in Norman, the lean Mead must certainly make a leap to live up to the four-star hype he arrived with back in 2014.
DE D.J. Ward
It’s hard to believe D.J. Ward is entering his senior season next fall. The athletic, versatile edge rusher has made some plays through his three seasons in the crimson and cream, but with the switch on the defensive front, a breakout season could be on the horizon for the former four-star recruit from Southmoore/Lawton. Starting his first four games as a Sooner last season, Ward certainly has the size at 6-2, 265 pounds, and the talent to emerge as a major contributor opposite the prolific Okoronkwo in the new-look Oklahoma defense. The two seniors could team up to truly wreak havoc on the edge as Ward, like Obo, also has the talent to potentially be playing on Sundays in the future.
A big season from Ward could indicate a huge leap in Mike Stoops’ defense and OU’s national title chances.
WR Jordan Smallwood
To complement Mead on the offense is fellow in-state wideout Jordan Smallwood. The Jenks product arrived on campus in 2013 with the look and speed of a potential star, but after redshirting and dealing with some injuries since, Smallwood — yet to find the end zone in his college career — hasn’t made the impact Oklahoma fans hoped he would’ve by now. Possessing solid NFL size at 6-2, 227 pounds, Smallwood was mentioned by name in Coach Stoops’ presser yesterday as one of the guys who could be in line to make plays next season. He’ll have all spring to prove himself once again, as there appears to be some very nice depth and talent in the wide receiver core with the additions of newcomers Marquise Brown, CeeDee Lamb and Charleston Rambo. Smallwood’s experience with the game speed at this level and the tempo of Riley’s offense could finally keep him on the field this season as the youngsters play catch-up.
LB Kapri Doucet
Kapri Doucet will don the no. 16 jersey in his final season in Norman and hopes to cap his OU career with a good campaign. Coach Stoops indicated in his presser that Doucet, along with Ricky DeBerry, should spend some time at inside linebacker in the new scheme. At 6-2, 225 pounds, the Lackawanna Junior College (Scranton, Penn.) product has shown flashes of freakish athleticism and the potential to become a consistent, if not prolific, playmaker with more snaps following the graduation of co-captain Jordan Evans.
Doucet spent much of last season dealing with injuries, but in a full, healthy season playing alongside his former JUCO teammate Emmanuel Beal, could thrive on the inside. As Caleb Kelly and the youth on the outside look to become a future nightmare for the rest of the Big 12’s offenses, Doucet could stake his claim to the inside spot this season with his speed, instinct and relentless motor to make plays. At the very least, he could be in the rotation along with John-Michael Terry and Ricky DeBerry.
The Other Guys
LB Emmanuel Beal
DB Will Johnson
Finally, it’ll be interesting to see if Will Johnson finds a home in OU’s secondary. Fellow senior Emmanuel Beal has already established himself as a solid contributor with 10 starts as a junior, but the positional switch to the secondary for Johnson could bring out some hidden potential and add a little more depth in what has been a lackluster, sometimes frustrating, career in Norman for the senior Johnson.
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