Oklahoma football: What we know now that we didn’t before

NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 02: Tight end Grant Calcaterra
NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 02: Tight end Grant Calcaterra /

Even with super high expectations for Oklahoma football coming into this season, there were enough unknowns to cast some doubt on the Sooners’ realistic chances to reach their desired destination.

Everyone knew of the stellar success the Sooners enjoyed under Bob Stoops. But whether new head coach Lincoln Riley would be able to sustain the same level of high achievement. The fact that Riley was not completely new to the program, having been elevated from the offensive coordinator position he served in for the past two season, was a big step in the right direction.

The remainder of the coaching staff remains in tact, which is a considerable plus in a head-coaching transition.

Baker Mayfield is back at quarterback for a third season, but the offensive weaponry he had relied on previously has been noticeably minimized by the departure of three prominent contributors to the Sooners’ 2016 No. 2 national ranking in total offense.

Seventy-six percent of Oklahoma’s rushing yards last season and 41 percent of the Sooners’ pass receiving yards came from just three players, and all three have moved on to the NFL. The big question entering the new season and Saturday’s season-opening game against UTEP (University of Texas-El Paso) was who and where that offensive yardage would come from in 2017, a season in which the expectations were just as high if not higher than they were a year ago.

A football maven much smarter and more prescient than I once said: one game does not a season make. Nevertheless, the Sooners’ decisive 56-7 victory over the Miners of UTEP on Saturday did provide some first returns on what we would come to know about what we didn’t know coming into the new season.

1) How will the Sooners perform under new head coach Lincoln Riley?

First of all, let’s agree that Oklahoma is going to be fine with Lincoln Riley as head coach. I didn’t see any hitch in the Sooners’ game on Saturday. Clearly the offense is as loaded with multiple weapons at the skill positions, and with an offensive line that is second to none and makes all of those weapons that much better.

The new Oklahoma head coach is younger than most of his peers, but he is already recognized as one of the brightest offensive minds in the college ranks. Riley is obviously the man OU officials were grooming for the job he is in now, and Stoops has left him a loaded toolbox with which to get the job done and hit the ground running, which was clearly in evidence on Saturday.

Oklahoma Sooners Football
Oklahoma Sooners Football /

Oklahoma Sooners Football

There is still a long season ahead, and the level of competition gets as tough as it will be at any point this season on Saturday, when the Sooners take on No. 2 Ohio State, a prime College Football Playoff contender and the last team to beat Oklahoma, 11 games ago.

Bob Stoops says his successor knows what he needs to do, and he’s ready. I think he is, too.

2) Who will become Baker Mayfield’s go-to receiving targets with no Dede Westbrook to depend on for big plays?

If you are a believer in the competitive theory that there is strength in numbers, you are going to like what are going to see this season in the Oklahoma Air Raid attack. No fewer than 14 receivers caught passes in Oklahoma’s win over UTEP. Out of 36 targets by three different quarterbacks, the Sooner receiving stable hauled in 32 of them and at an average of 15.5 yards per catch.

Junior tight end Mark Andrews caught seven passes for 134 yards and a touchdown in just one-half of duty of Saturday, and would appear to be someone Mayfield will look to a lot in 2017 to take advantage of the size and strength mismatch the big tight end (who plays much like a wide receiver) presents.

What made Westbrook such a sensation a year ago was his elite speed and his sure hands. The Sooners just may have a couple of Westbrook-like receivers this season in graduate transfer Jeff Badet, who possesses the same type of speed as Westbrook and caught four passes for 91 yards in OU’s opening win, one for 51 yards, setting up one of the eight Sooner touchdowns in the game. Junior-college transfer Marquise Brown was also very impressive on Saturday, making three big catches.

True Freshman CeeDee Lamb and Jordan Smallwood made three receptions, as well, on Saturday. And we haven’t even mentioned the name of senior receiver Jeffery Mead, who the Oklahoma coaches believe will have a breakout season.

The big takeaway on the receiving unit, with one 2017 game in the books, is that the Sooners are not just going to rely on two or three receivers to advance the ball in the passing game. They are going to go with multiple pass-receiving weapons and keep defenses guessing and having to adjust to different matchups and receiver rotations.

3) The four running backs on the depth chart had played in just seven games combined at Oklahoma, and that applies to just one of the four players. Who is going to carry the load this season, and how do you replace a pair of RBs the likes of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine?

The answer: You go with a running-backs-by-committee approach. Sophomore Abdul Adams got the start on Saturday and performed well, averaging a team-high 7.6 yards per carry on seven carries and also caught a pass out of the backfield, a very encouraging sign, for a 34-yard gain.

Oklahoma ran 38 running plays in the game, 27 of those carries divided among four running backs. Three of the four (Adams, junior Marcelias Sutton and true freshman Trey Sermon) rambled for more than 50 yards each and averaged at least six yards per rushing attempt. The fourth, redshirt junior Rodney Anderson, had 14 yards rushing on four carries and also caught a pass for nine yards, and he might be the most talented of the group.

All four of the Oklahoma running backs possess talent and complement each other with their different styles. Running behind a massive, experienced offensive line only accentuates the danger this group poses for opposing defensive fronts.

Will the Sooners be able to run the ball effectively this season? You better believe they can.