2016 Recap: The Dede Westbrook show
Historically, OU’s offense goes as the receivers go.
In 2014, for example, the season went in the tank after Sterling Shepard suffered a debilitating groin injury. Or, take 2009, when breaking in a slew of new pass catchers left the Sooners misfiring for most of the season.
The past season possessed that same kind of underwhelming potential - until Dede Westbrook kicked into overdrive. The Heisman Trophy finalist healed up in October and went on an historic stretch of nine games. During that run, Westbrook caught 16 touchdowns and averaged 146 receiving yards and more than six receptions per game.
Much like Shepard in 2015, Lincoln Riley found a variety of uses for his star wideout. Westbrook took the opportunity to showcase his explosive speed and improved ball skills. He did most of his damage on vertical routes. He also demonstrated a knack for sniffing out openings in opponents’ zones and racking up yards in the screen game.
Westbrook’s productivity limited the looks for OU’s other receivers. The supporting cast included Mark Andrews, who struggled through injuries and still managed to haul in more than 30 balls and score seven touchdowns. Also, Penn State transfer Geno Lewis proved to be a reliable target on third downs in his one season in Norman.
Story of 2017: Questions abound
Back to what I said about the relationship between OU’s offense and the receivers. The reliance on Westbrook in ‘16 should give Sooner fans heartburn in the offseason about who’s going to be catching balls from Baker Mayfield come September. Was No. 11 such a focal point of the passing game because he was that good, or were the other guys not good enough?
Consider Andrews a lock for the top line of the depth chart. If he stays healthy, the hybrid tight end will produce. His upside, however, will remain capped so long as he continues to show a propensity for drops. Furthermore, Andrews needs to learn how to better use his 6-5 frame to create space and work his way open. For a guy his size, Andrews seems to be covered far too often.
On the outside, lanky Jeffery Mead started to show promise late in the year. Once written off as a project gone bust, Mead turned into a threat with strong hands in traffic and on sideline routes. He’ll also have a spot in the starting lineup.
Mykel Jones will likely find his way into the competition for first-team slot. He got snaps as a freshman in ‘16, but the blue-chip prospect never really busted out. It would help if Riley could find some use for the shifty Louisiana native beyond WR screens.
The other guys: What can Brown do for OU?
We’ll hear names like A.D. Miller and Dahu Green bandied about during the offseason as potential breakout candidates. The one to watch, however, is JUCO transfer Marquise Brown.
The speedster out of the College of the Canyons stands to give the Sooners a major threat. OU can use Brown’s wheels to give him catch-and-run opportunities or to get vertical off the line. Who knows if Brown can play with the same kind of consistency as Westbrook, but look for Riley to move the newcomer around to test defenses in a variety of ways.
Also keep an eye on incoming freshman Cedarian Lamb. Physically, the four-star Texan appears ready to contribute immediately, with the tools to become one of the best receivers ever to don the crimson and cream.