Coming into the 2014 season, the Oklahoma Sooners were surrounded by a lot of hype, but still had questions on both sides of the ball.
The Sooners' defense has emphatically answered questions about the secondary, showcasing a bevy of talent across the board. The linebacker group is still thin, but former walk-on Caleb Gastelum has shown he has what it takes to be a serviceable backup to Jordan Evans, who in turn is filling in for the suspended Frank Shannon.
The offense is a different story. While the Sooners have done an excellent job of replacing three seniors at the running back position with the three-headed monster of Keith Ford, Alex Ross and Samaje Perine, the wide receiver position still has some questions.
Through three games, junior Sterling Shepard has been exceptional, but this comes as little surprise to anyone who has seen him play over the past two years. The bigger question was who was going to join him as a pass-catcher for quarterback Trevor Knight?
Fellow junior Durron Neal has stepped up his game considerably, after showing flashes of potential in each of his first two years in Norman. Neal has caught 15 passes for 183 yards so far this season, but hasn't seen the end zone yet.
“I definitely feel like I'm getting better every week and I think it's more of me just going out there and playing more confident, being more relaxed, knowing all my assignments now, just being in the offense here for two years and learning from guys in the past,” Neal said. “Now, it's my opportunity to step up for the team and I feel like if I go out there and play with confidence and relax and have fun it'll be good.”
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Knight and Neal, along with the other wide receivers, spent a lot of time working on their connection over the summer, knowing full well the success of the passing game this season depended on the work they put in to get on the same page. So far, that work has been paying off, for Neal in particular.
“Durron has always been a guy that's an extremely hard worker and wants the ball in his hands,” Knight said. “He hasn't done anything specifically over the past week that's made it any different but we continue to develop that chemistry on the outside not only with him but also with the other guys, Sterling, Blake (Bell) and K.J. (Young). I think it's been apparent getting more on the same page and hopefully that trend continues the rest of the season.”
However, that growth hasn't spread all the way through the unit just yet. The starting wide receiver group of Shepard, Neal and K.J. Young has accounted for 40 of the Sooners' 63 completions this year and all but two from the wide receiver position. Jordan Smallwood has the other two, both coming in late-game action.
Freshman Michiah Quick has seen the field and has been targeted by Knight, but doesn't have any catches yet this season. Fellow freshman Jeffrey Mead has also seen game action. Neal said the young receivers have been working hard every day and are just waiting on their time to come.
“They're doing well,” Neal said. “Just like me, they're just waiting on their number to get called and when the opportunity comes you have to take advantage of it. All our receivers, they're ready, they're prepared, they come out to work every day.”
OU coach Bob Stoops echoed Neal's comments, expressing a desire to get Young and Quick in particular more opportunities and noting the progress of one of the younger players.
“Jordan Smallwood continues to make progress,” Stoops said. “The last couple of weeks in particular have really been exciting with what he has done in practice.
“They're coming along, Jeffrey Mead, same thing, getting better and better. We just have to try as we go to get those guys more opportunities and they'll have to step up.”
However, Stoops didn't seem too concerned the wide receiver distribution hasn't really ventured outside the three starters to this point. Six other players have caught passes this season, with 15 receptions coming from the running back position. Converted tight end Blake Bell has five catches for 62 yards and a score through three games, showing the skill the coaches have been seeing since the spring.
“He's got great hands,” Stoops said. “I think even as maybe other receivers getting involved, I think getting the ball to Dmitri Flowers and Blake more and those positions also will help us. They're capable of making big plays.”
It may be unreasonable for a bunch of freshmen and sophomores to step up and perform like experienced veterans, but the Sooners definitely need more pass catchers to step up and be more reliable targets for Knight. Those could come from the wide receiver position, but at this point, it appears Stoops is satisfied with anyone who can get the job done consistently.