As the days march slowly onward, we are finally getting closer to football season. The Oklahoma Sooners kick off their 2017 campaign in a few months with a roster composed of players both old and new. While some familiar faces from last year have moved on, that’s the nature of college football — reload quickly or fade into mediocrity.
To give Sooner fans an idea of how exactly Oklahoma will reload a wide receivers group that’s losing quite a bit of production, we’re here to offer our insight on what to expect from this year’s pass-catchers.
In 2016, only five Sooners players caught more than twenty passes. Here are the five leading receivers from that season:
The first thing that stands out is the fact that Oklahoma’s leading receiver, Biletnikoff Award winner Dede Westbrook, is no longer with the team. He had almost three times as many receiving yards as the next closest player — Joe Mixon — who is also no longer with the squad. Geno Lewis, the grad transfer who graced Oklahoma with his final season in the NCAA, is also gone. That’s a lot of production lost, and there’s no way to spin it any other way.
Sooner fans were led to believe that Mark Andrews would have a monster season last year, and while he was certainly impressive at times, he disappeared for the middle of the season after reportedly suffering a shoulder injury that kept him limited for a while. Former walk-on Nick Basquine, on the other hand, exceeded expectations in his debut season.
Coming Back for More
With the shining star of OU’s 2016 receiver’s group moving on, there are some returning players who will be vying for passes from the quarterback who set the NCAA record for passing efficiency a year ago.
Oklahoma's leading returning receiver will be looking to take his productivity to the next level. If you've ever heard Mark Andrews mentioned on television or seen his name in an article, it's probably been accompanied by one description: matchup nightmare. It's true; the man is a problem for defenses. He's too big for most people to really cover, and his athleticism is what keeps him from being a "normal" tight end. A man his size shouldn't be able to dodge defenders like this:
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.
Mead is another obvious candidate to get a big role in the offense last year. His stats last year certainly weren't mind-blowing (10 catches, 150 yards, and three touchdowns), but he's shown signs that he may be ready to turn the corner. First, a quick look at his stats from last season shows that, aside from one catch for six yards against Louisiana Monroe, all of Mead's stats came in the final six games of the season. I'm not in all of the coaching meetings (or even any of them), but I have to believe Mead showed them something to make Mayfield and the coaches believe that, after five games with no catches, he should be a bigger part of the offense. It may have had something to do with this play against Iowa State:
I've seen literally every snap of football since Mead joined the team, so I say with some confidence that this was the (at the time) junior's best play to-date. The next week against Baylor, he had only one catch, but it was an impressive one-handed tip-to-self. Against Oklahoma State, his lone reception was good for 42 yards, and it was the kind of play that you would have associated with Dede Westbrook -- a deep crossing route where he got behind the defense after Mayfield bought some time in the backfield. Since Westbrook was out for most of that game, Sooners fans got to see how the offense might look without him, and Mead making a big play (and specifically that kind of play) was a good sign.
Finally, Mead had two receptions against Auburn in the Sugar Bowl, and while he tallied only 27 yards, both plays showed flashes of the kind of talent Mead brings to the table. He went up and made plays in coverage on both catches, showing that he's comfortable using his length and his hands to make these kinds of catches.
All of this is to say that my expectations for Mead don't come so much from his previous stats as his film. He makes the kinds of plays a leading receiver needs to make. Especially with a play-maker like Mayfield making the throws, it's important for a receiver to be able to move around in the secondary, navigate sidelines, and make catches in tight windows even when the ball is away from their body. Mead is definitely one to watch this year.
Basquine earned Scout Team Offensive Player of the Year during his 2014 redshirt season, but that success wasn't rewarded with paling time in 2015. In 2016, though, he made his way onto the field for each of the Sooners' games, starting twice. He recorded his first touchdown against Louisiana Monroe and found the end zone again in the midst of the offensive haymaker the Sooners threw at Texas Tech. The Sooners have a certain affection for former walk-ons (hey there, Baker), and Basquine more than earned the scholarship he received in the middle of the season last year. Basquine and freshman Mykel Jones filled the role of the traditional slot receiver (short, quick, good hands), and Basquine was just a bit more reliable. Basquine is the most seasoned player for this role, and I expect him to at least match his productivity from last season.
While Basquine turned out to be perhaps a more reliable target in the slot in 2016, Jones’ upside at the position is undeniable. Big 12 secondaries could be in trouble if and when it clicks for him, as he has the speed and athleticism to join the long line of great receivers OU has had in recent years. The sophomore-to-be came to OU with a considerable amount of hype and showed some nice flashes this spring, so fans are eager to see if he can make the next step in 2017.
Smallwood caught five passes for 52 yards last season, giving him only eight career catches. However, he still has the tools to make him an impact player for the Sooners. He’s the same height as length freshman CeDarian Lamb (more on him in a bit), but he’s almost 50 pounds heavier. He has the size to be a major problem for cornerbacks. Additionally, that size also makes him an asset in blocking situations, as Oklahoma’s running game often relies on receivers doing their job even if the ball won’t be coming to them. Given the relative inexperience of most of the other receivers, if Smallwood can leverage his size with improved skills separating from coverage, he could be a dark-horse candidate to see the field often as a senior.
I've liked the flashes Miller has shown (he was Oklahoma's leading receiver against Ohio State last year), but he appears to be trending the opposite direction as Mead. After recording catches in six of the first seven games last year, he was held without a reception for the final six games. When Dahu Green left the team a month ago, there were rumors that Miller may be doing the same. It appears he will indeed be staying with the Sooners, but at this point I'm not sure what his role will be. Riley loves to rotate receivers, but unfortunately Miller may be facing too much competition to shine this season.
I'll Take "Graduate Transfer" for $200, Alex
Oklahoma develops some solid wide receivers, but they also seem to utilize graduate transfers well for the one season they contribute in Norman. Recently, Justin Brown and Geno Lewis made their way to Oklahoma for the 2012 and 2016 seasons, respectively (Note: Brown came in before his senior season after the Penn State scandal and wasn’t technically a grad transfer, but we'll count him here because he had only one year of eligibility when he arrived on campus at Oklahoma). Both played well and were major contributors in their lone seasons donning the Crimson & Cream. This is a particularly difficult role to fill, since these players have to come in after spending time in systems that often look nothing like Oklahoma's, get acclimated to the playbook almost instantly, and show enough talent to beat out other players that coaches had their eyes on for some time.
This season, Oklahoma will again return to the graduate transfer well when Jeff Badet makes his premiere after playing the first portion of his career at Kentucky. Since this is a player who played in the SEC, he will obviously come in as the best player the Big 12 has ever seen, right Paul Finebaum? Sorry, couldn't help myself...
Seriously, though, Badet played in an offense that relied on the pass much less than Oklahoma does, but still showed signs of the kinds of talent the Sooners are looking for in a receiver. The statistic that stands out the most for Badet is the 22 yards per reception he tallied last year. Deep threats are important in a high-flying offense, and if Badet can acclimate himself to his new climate, he may be right at home.
OU fans have every reason to be optimistic about the new group of receivers on campus this year.
Former JUCO star Marquis Brown has a slight edge on the other young receivers since he was with the team during spring ball. His nickname's "Jet," and if you're not sure why, check out his highlight video from last season.
Reportedly weighing in at 160 pounds, he's built more like DeSean Jackson than Julio Jones, but he's the kind of player who should fit Oklahoma's offense perfectly.
CeDarian Lamb and Charleston Rambo
Lamb and Rambo were two of the highest rated receivers in the state of Texas last year, which is no easy feat. Neither was on campus for spring ball, but both have reportedly been making splashes at summer workouts. The similarities don't stop there: both come in billed as long receivers with good ball skills, though neither is a huge bulking target. They're going to have a lot of work to do to be ready to roll in 2017, but there's every reason to expect that they're players who are going to make major contributions at some point.
The easiest way to describe Calcaterra is "Andrews 2.0," though Andrews has two inches and 30 pounds on the freshman. What he lacks in size (compared to Andrews, at least), he makes up for in athleticism. He's a more natural receiver than Andrews, and there's every reason to expect at this stage that he'll be able to pick up the mantle from Andrews once Andrews heads to the NFL (which I expect to happen after this season). While it may make sense on paper to redshirt Calcaterra and let him develop, I personally don't think this will happen. Lincoln Riley often talks about innovating and the need to constantly change what you're doing to stay ahead in college football. With that backdrop, I have a feeling Riley will find a way to get both Calcaterra and Andrews on the field at the same time for some different packages next season.
Oklahoma's 2017 Outlook
The Sooners have a healthy mix of experienced players returning and new talent arriving for 2017. OU did a great job of bringing in the perfect receivers for their system with their 2017 signing class, and as they develop, I don't expect a major production drop overall, though I think the passes will be a bit more spread out than the last two seasons where Sterling Shepard and Dede Westbrook caught the lion's share of passes (last year, Westbrook had 80 of the team's 271 total catches).
While it's tough to say how things will play out as all players involved continue to develop, I've got a feeling the starters at the beginning of the year will be:
- Jeffrey Mead - outside (Backups: CeDarian Lamb and Jordan Smallwood)
- Jeff Badet - outside (Backups: Charleston Rambo and A.D. Miller)
- Marquise Brown - slot (Backups: Nick Basquine and Mykel Jones)
- Mark Andrews - flex/TE (Backup: Grant Calcaterra)
Note: One thing to keep in mind is that Lincoln Riley has displayed a tendency to sometimes put traditional slot guys on the outside and vice versa. So a guy like Jeff Mead could easily end up starting the game lined up inside, while and a guy like Marquise Brown could line up outside in certain situations. It’s all part of his genius.
Of those players, only Andrews and Basquine have more than 20 career receptions in an Oklahoma uniform, so one of the biggest questions will be how quickly the others can get comfortable in the system and how much Mayfield will be able to trust them from the get-go. I don't think it will be a problem by the time the middle of the season rolls around, but everyone knows that a trip to the Horseshoe is looming for game number two this year. I have a feeling that the most important receivers in that game will be, in order, Andrews, Mead, and Basquine, for the simple reason that they've got experience in the system.
By the time Big 12 play is in full-swing, don't be surprised if the Sooners are once again one of the best passing attacks in the league, though those expectations should be hedged with the knowledge that it only happens if guys like Mead, Brown, Badet and Lamb come along as hoped.
Who will lead Oklahoma in receptions in 2017?
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Other (answer in the comments)