NORMAN — Oklahoma begins the 2014 football season Saturday night facing sky-high expectations. The Sooners are considered a favorite to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff, no surprise considering their 45-31 Sugar Bowl upset of Alabama less than eight months ago.
But a deeper look at this Oklahoma team — particularly its offense — reveals stunning inexperience that no Bob Stoops-coached team has dealt with since 1999, his very first year in Norman.
The Sooners’ season opener — set for 6 p.m. Saturday against Louisiana Tech on Owen Field — will be the first significant game experience for a high number of the team’s running backs and wide receivers.
Oklahoma’s two leading returning rushers? Trevor Knight and Blake Bell, who split time at quarterback a year ago and combined for just 700 rushing yards in 2013. Bell has since moved to tight end.
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The Sooners’ top-two returning running backs are sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross, who combined for 26 carries, 153 yards and a single touchdown last season.
Junior Sterling Shepard has recorded over 1,200 receiving yards over his first two seasons on campus, but the second-most productive wideout returning is junior Durron Neal, who had just 176 yards in 2013.
Bell, who started eight games at quarterback in 2013 and passed for 1,648 yards and 12 touchdowns, is expected to start Saturday at his new spot, a position he never played until last spring.
“There’s no substitute for real-live game action at the end of the day,” said OU offensive coordinator Josh Heupel. “We expect those guys to play well. They need to catch the football, but they've got to hold onto the football when they've got it in their hands. We believe in those guys, but it'll be a huge test for them and for us next Saturday.”
The last time Oklahoma brought back such little offensive production was 15 years ago, when Stoops took over the program after three dreadful seasons under John Blake.
The leading rusher on Blake’s final team, junior standout De’Mond Parker, skipped his senior season.
Jarrail Jackson was the Sooners’ returning leader at wide receiver, and he’d only recorded 218 yards in 1998.
Stoops also had to find a quarterback. Walk-on Patrick Fletcher and quarterback-turned-receiver Brandon Daniels were the only two experienced passers returning from the 1998 squad.
Heupel transferred from a junior college, of course, became a Heisman Trophy runner-up and led OU to the 2000 national championship.
After Knight’s Sugar Bowl MVP performance against Alabama, Oklahoma has a clear signal caller.
Knight, of course, struggled early last season, and has left two of his five career starts injured.
“That’s college football,” receivers coach Jay Norvell said of OU’s lacking experience at the offensive skill positions.
“That’s every year. We have to replace players. We’re constantly recruiting and we’re constantly developing players. Young players have to step up and develop and we expect everybody on scholarship to play well. This is their first opportunity.”