The 2013 season saw OU's passing offense struggle with inconsistent quarterback play and the transition away from the pass-happy scheme of years past. There’s no question that Trevor Knight will be the quarterback this year, but whether or not he can play at the level he did in the Sugar Bowl with a bunch of new pass catchers remains to be seen.
Knight will get the benefit of a full offseason working with the green players surrounding him. With Blake Bell now at tight end (more on that shortly) and Kendal Thompson transferring, former four-star recruits Cody Thomas and Justice Hansen will battle for the backup job. Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, who had a fantastic spring game, is technically still awaiting an NCAA ruling on his status, but it appears inevitable that he will have to sit out this season. Knight struggled with injuries in 2013, so Thomas or Hansen may end up seeing significant playing time. If Knight were to suffer a serious injury early in the season, it could open up the possibility of Bell’s return under center.
The receiving corps took quite a hit to graduation. Of the nine Sooners who caught more than two passes in 2013, just two (Sterling Shepard and Durron Neal) return. Of the 24 receiving touchdowns in 2013, the players responsible for nine return, with one of those touchdowns courtesy of kicker Michael Hunnicutt against Oklahoma State.
The good news is that Sterling Shepard should have no problem adding the couple of touches needed to match Jalen Saunders’ production from last year. Neal, however, has caught just 18 passes in two seasons, so the second option behind Shepard is up for grabs.
Third-year wideout Derrick Woods saw time on occasion last year, including the Sugar Bowl. Competing with Woods and Neal for time will be a group of first- and second-year guys, including Austin Bennett, Dannon Cavil and K.J. Young. Redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood, who drew rave reviews from the coaching staff in the spring, returns after a year lost to a broken foot. A trio of four-star freshmen in Michiah Quick, Dallas Todd, and Mark Andrews will also push for playing time.
Of course, the NCAA could turn receiver into a position of strength if it grants Dorial Green-Beckham a waiver to play this season. Green-Beckham is one of the most talented players in the country, and he could completely change the Oklahoma offense. He may even surpass Shepard as Knight’s number one receiver.
With the lack of experience at receiver, tight ends could play more of a role in the passing game this year. (Of course, any role is a bigger role than the group played last season.)
QB convert Blake Bell’s name keeps being mentioned by the coaches, and it’s beginning to feel like they’re not just paying lip service to him at this point. In addition to Bell, redshirt sophomore Taylor McNamara is in line to benefit from the possibility of the tight end's increased presence in the offense. McNamara had just one catch last year, but it came in the Sugar Bowl. Perhaps the extra preparation allowed the offensive staff to install some new pieces to the offense that got McNamara and the now departed Brannon Green, who added his second catch of the season that night, more involved. Sophomore Isaac Ijalana, a juco transfer, is battling for playing time as well.
The offensive line will have four veteran starters. Ty Darlington, who is tasked with replacing Gabe Ikard at center, is the greenest member of the first team. The optimistic view is that an experienced line, including two senior tackles with bright NFL futures in Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams, should be able to keep Knight upright and healthy.
Injuries, however, could prove disastrous for the line. Very little experience waits in the wings.
For the 2014 Sooners, the passing game could be a major strength. A veteran offensive line, the still-improving Knight and a couple of quick-learning pass catchers could create an offense that carries the Sooners to a conference title. However, injuries to Knight, Shepard, or one of the offensive tackles could stop the aerial attack in its tracks.
There’s a lot of talent involved in OU's passing game in '14, but not a lot of room for error.