If there's one thing set in stone for Oklahoma this year, it's who is going to be slinging the ball all over the field.
What's left to be determined is who Trevor Knight is going to be throwing to.
Much like the running backs, this year's crop of wide receivers is largely inexperienced and untested. Luckily for the Sooners, junior Sterling Shepard is back or else the group would be even more inexperienced than it already is.
The Sooners are losing about 68 percent of last year's receptions and receiving yards and the best receiver on the roster, Jalen Saunders. But Shepard is cut from the same mold as Saunders and being behind him and former Sooner Kenny Stills the past two years has prepared him for this moment.
“They kind of paved the way for me, and I am just trying to do the same thing for the young guys,” Shepard said. “I feel like I had to wait my freshman year behind all those great receivers, and I was behind Jalen observing what he did well. I feel like it's my turn to step up, and I am ready to do that.”
Over past six seasons, the Sooners have tried to push the tempo on offense to great effect. Shepard said the receivers who have come and gone have taught him a lot about playing faster, showing that Oklahoma's tempo on offense isn't the only thing on the field moving at a breakneck pace.
“This game is about speed and about getting open fast,” Shepard said. “I definitely wanted to perfect that and it's something I've been able to master a little bit. I wouldn't say I've mastered it, but I've gotten the hang of it and that's what I've tried to teach the young guys: get open fast and the ball is going to come your way.”
The young wide receivers the Sooners have on the roster have a big opportunity to step up and get some playing time right away, but it's just as important the veterans on the roster accept the responsibility. So far, it appears at least one of them is doing so.
“Durron Neal has really stuck out to me in just three days along with of course Sterling (Shepard) who has been really exceptional and he's taking it to another level,” coach Bob Stoops said at the team's media day. “Durron Neal is a guy though in the last several days is in a really good place. It's coming together well in some places that really need some guys to come through.”
Yet as important as the older receivers are, the focus has been on the newcomers, particularly Missouri transfer Dorial Green-Beckham. DGB has not been ruled eligible for this season, but the Sooners are hopeful he can play and bring much-needed experience to the unit.
The Sooners recruited Green-Beckham hard when he was making his college decision, and the relationship that formed between him and the coaching staff made his transfer to Oklahoma possible.
“We felt like we knew the factors that were important for him to have success, and we felt like we could put him in that kind of environment,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “So those are the major things. He's a talent, and we felt like he could really help our football team. We really felt like he was just like the rest of our kids. He's made some mistakes at times, shown some immaturity at times, but we really felt like in the right environment that he could mature and turn into a fine student and a good guy in the locker room and on the field.”
The incoming freshmen are very talented and—except for Michiah Quick—very big. Dallis Todd, Jeffery Mead and Mark Andrews all stand at least 6-foot-4 and give the Sooners a physical presence on the outside that has been absent in Norman for some time.
“From the looks of it, those guys they don't play like they're freshmen, and they are big bodies,” Shepard said. “It's great to have a big body. Anytime you have a big body you can push people around. They're doing a really good job with using their strength.
“With Michiah Quick and some of the other young guys, they are really good with their feet and quick, so it is easy for them to get open. Like I said, they don't play like they are freshmen.”
Not only have the freshmen come in and worked hard, looking for that open playing time, but Shepard said they've been extremely teachable as well.
“The freshmen ask questions and that's what they're supposed to do,” Shepard said. “We always tell them if you have something you're not sure about, just ask a question. They're doing a great job of that. They come in here for a lot of answers.”
So much potential, so much uncertainty. Oklahoma's wide receivers could be very good in 2014, but right now, players need to step up and help their quarterback, the only certain thing in the Sooners' passing game.