Baker Mayfield entered the 2016 season with plenty of justified Heisman hype. In his first season with the Oklahoma Sooners, the Texas Tech transfer and former walk-on had thrown for 3,700 yards and 36 touchdowns with only seven interceptions and had led his team to a Big 12 Championship and a berth in the College Football Playoff. Oklahoma returned the most talented backfield in college football, but many wondered if the loss of Sterling Shepard and the inexperience along the offensive line would bring Lincoln Riley’s offense — and Baker Mayfield in particular — back down to earth.
Folks were cautiously optimistic that Dede Westbrook would be the guy to step up in Shepard’s absence, but no one really expected him to match his production. Things looked bleak in the early going, as Westbrook struggled with with a hamstring injury in the first three games. A bye week following the loss to Ohio State proved to be just what he doctor ordered, however, and Westbrook would go on an tear over the final 10 games of the season. He would finish the 2016 season with 80 receptions for 1524 yards and 17 touchdowns — most of which would come after the Ohio State loss — and join his quarterback as a finalist at the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York.
As Westbrook emerged, the offense opened up. Mayfield went on to have the most efficient season by a quarterback in FBS history. Life got easier for Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, who were now facing defenses that were forced to respect the deep ball. Oklahoma’s offense became all but unstoppable. The offensive line’s emergence can be credited for much of that success down the stretch, but Westbrook’s emergence was just as vital.
Oklahoma faces a similar situation heading into 2017. Not only is Dede Westbrook gone, but the Sooners have to replace not one, but two of the most talented running backs in school history. I have no doubt that Oklahoma’s offense will be a well-oiled machine despite these losses. Returning an entire offensive line and a Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback tends to make things run a bit smoother, and it’s not like Oklahoma struggles to recruit the skill positions at a high level.
There’s a good chance that the young guys at the skill positions end up sharing the load. When that occurs, there’s a good chance that you don’t see individual players put up award-worthy numbers. But what if someone sets himself apart and becomes a go-to guy? There are plenty of talented players with the potential to have breakout seasons and become Oklahoma’s next star on offense.
But who could it be? Here are the primary candidates:
After missing his first season due to a leg injury suffered in OU’s game at Tennessee, Anderson sustained a neck injury in a fall scrimmage last August. We’ve all heard plenty about Anderson since he originally stepped on campus, but he’s still a bit of a mystery. However, Bob Stoops and Lincoln Riley both heaped plenty of praise on him in the spring, indicating that Anderson could be OU’s next great running back. At 6-2 and 223 pounds, Anderson has power, speed and elusiveness to get a fairly heavy workload and be the featured back in Oklahoma’s offense. Riley went so far as to call him a “freak” during one of Oklahoma’s practices this spring, and it’s easy to see why after taking one look at him.
#Sooners RB Rodney Anderson met the media. He's in incredible shape & says he's finally healthy with a big opportunity in front of him. pic.twitter.com/hZYyzmUvWU— Dylan Buckingham (@DylanBuckingham) March 24, 2017
If Anderson can live up to the hype, stay healthy and separate himself from the rest of Oklahoma’s young running backs, Anderson could have an enormous year in Oklahoma’s offense and gain plenty of national attention.
If you follow OU football, you’re plenty familiar with Mark Andrews. The guy has made plenty of big plays for the Sooners over the past couple of years. However, he’s dealt with some issues that have kept him from being as consistent as he needs to be. The guy is a freak of nature and should probably win the Mackey Award if he plays as well as he’s capable.
Here’s what Steve had to say recently about OU’s leading returning receiver:
Without such an obvious primary target this year for Baker Mayfield, expect Andrews to get a lot more looks and to end this year with a lot more than the 31 receptions he had last year. There may be no game where Andrews will be needed to the extent the Sooners need him in Columbus in September. Though Oklahoma has several intriguing new receivers (we'll get to that in a bit), Andrews' experience may be crucial in trying to take down the Buckeyes.
Now that he's healthy once again, expect Andrews to be Mayfield's safety blanket in the middle of the field. This isn't exactly going out on a limb, but I expect Andrews to have a monster year. 50 receptions with 800+ yards and 10 touchdowns wouldn't be unreasonable goals for Andrews this season.
Over the offseason, Oklahoma landed the nation’s No. 2 JUCO wide receiver, Marquise Brown. Like many an effective Oklahoma receiver before him, Brown is a smaller guy with serious big-play ability. His nickname is “Jet”, and there’s a reason for that.
Brown kind of reminds me of former Kansas State and current Seattle Seahawks receiver/return specialist Tyler Lockett — a diminutive guy who is phenomenal route runner with tremendous speed and has a knack for getting behind people. However, the oversized helmet he wore in JUCO ball may be what reminds me of Lockett more than anything.
This guy could potentially jump right into Westbrook’s role as the alpha of the receiving core, and I think he could pick up his slack in the return game as well.
Oklahoma received some very welcome news back in March when Kentucky Wildcats grad transfer Jeff Badet announced his intention to play his final collegiate season at Oklahoma. As a junior in the SEC, Badet led Kentucky with 670 yards receiving and led the conference with 21.6 yards per reception.
Badet played in an offense that focused more on the running game at Kentucky, so the opportunity to play in a wide-open offense had to be appealing to him. Expect him to line up on the outside this coming season and have plenty of chances to make big plays downfield for the Sooners.
Like Marquise Brown, Sutton comes to Oklahoma as highly-rated prospect from the JUCO level. Unlike most of the other backs on OU’s roster, Sutton is more of a scat-back, which makes it easy to envision him carving out a role in the offense this coming season.
But Sutton is more than just a water bug — he’s also a pretty physical runner for a player of his height. At 191 pounds, he has the frame to take a bit more punishment than a guy like Roy Finch (167 pounds) did. This makes it much more likely for Lincoln Riley to allow him to carry the ball between the tackles, and that’s exactly what he did during this year’s spring game.
For three seasons, we’ve been waiting for Jeffery Mead to break out. It kind of happened in the final half of the 2016 season, as he pulled in nine of his 10 catches over the past six games. Those nine catches included a 30-yard touchdown against Iowa State (which included a pair of spin moves), a freakish one-handed catch against Baylor, a 42-yard catch against Oklahoma State and a pair of tough catches against Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. The coaching staff put trust in Mead during the most important games of the season, and he didn’t disappoint.
At 6-5, Mead has the height and length to give secondaries fits. I think it’s safe to expect him to play a much larger role in the offense and potentially impress some pro scouts during his senior season.
The Other Candidates
The rest of Oklahoma’s potential offensive stars are young guys with high upside. At the running back position, Abdul Adams has a chance to do some things after playing sparingly as a freshman. The coaches mentioned that he was Oklahoma’s most consistent back during spring practice, and he appeared to be a bit bigger and stronger during the spring game. Highly-touted freshmen Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks will look to get their share of carries in 2017, but the backfield may be a bit too crowded for either of them to truly break out.
Like Adams, sophomore receiver Mykel Jones looks to break out in his sophomore season after failing to really emerge as a freshman. He has the speed and athleticism to get it done, as do freshmen Cedarian Lamb and Charleston Rambo. Lamb and Rambo also bring some nice size to the table, so they could each have a chance to carve out a role on the outside and do something special.
What do you think, Sooner fans? Who will break out for OU in 2017?
Which skill-position player has the best chance to become a star in 2017?
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