NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — No. 4 Oklahoma expects its passing game to thrive, even without Dorial Green-Beckham.
The 6-foot-6 receiver with NFL-level athletic ability left Missouri after off-the-field problems, and he transferred to Oklahoma hoping he could play this season. Now that the NCAA has rejected his waiver request, the focus shifts to Sterling Shepard, Durron Neal, K.J. Young and the rest of a talented, somewhat unproven unit heading into Saturday's opener against Louisiana Tech.
Oklahoma also has to replace last year's top receiver, Jalen Saunders, and Lacoltan Bester, the Sooners' No. 3 receiver.
Shepard, Oklahoma's top returning receiver, caught 51 passes for 603 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Neal caught 13 passes for 176 yards a year ago. Young, a redshirt freshman, has impressed the team with his approach to the game. Blake Bell will be the starting tight end after shifting from quarterback in the spring.
Shepard was one of the stars in Oklahoma's Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. He caught seven passes for 63 yards and a touchdown, and he ran for another score.
"I think (Sterling) Shepard is a weapon when you look at what he does and how explosive he is," Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said. "They lost a lot of receivers from a year ago, but they return one of their best in Shepard. He is an incredibly talented wide receiver that will give us fits. It is very hard to simulate his speed and athleticism on the outside. It will be a great challenge for our back end, our defensive back end."
Shepard will play outside instead of in the slot this season.
"I had to work on my route running this summer," he said. "That's what I focused on a lot; just running outside routes and getting the feel for outside, because I haven't run it in a long time. I feel like I've adjusted a lot better. I had the slot down pat, so I kind of steered away from it a little bit and just focused on the outside. It's worked out."
Neal has drawn praise from the coaching staff throughout the offseason. The junior has started just two games at Oklahoma, but the coaches say he's ready for an expanded role.
"Durron is just playing with a lot of confidence," co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Jay Norvell said. "He's always shown great ability to run, to run after the catch, to go deep, all of those things. But he's just kind of tying all the loose ends of his game together and playing with a lot of confidence."
Young will step into the slot position vacated by Shepard.
"He's a playmaker," Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight said. "It just seems like when he's out there on the field, he's making plays. Not a super flashy guy, but a guy that just consistently gets it done."
Second string receivers are Derrick Woods, Jordan Smallwood and Michiah Quick. Others who will contribute are Dannon Cavil and Austin Bennett.
Quick, a true freshman, was a four-star recruit according to multiple services.
"He's quick, you know, matches his last name for sure," Shepard said. "He reminds me of me when I was a youngster. He's getting all the plays down and that's the main thing. When you get the plays down, you can play a lot faster, so he's in the process of doing that."
Smallwood is a redshirt freshman from Jenks, Okla. Woods is a redshirt sophomore who caught two passes last season.
At tight end, Bell has embraced his position switch, and the Sooners expect big things from him in the passing game. The coaches consider him a downfield threat.
"He's a key to what we want to do this year and I'm excited to see him play probably as much as anybody," Norvell said. "He's worked awfully hard. He has a great attitude for the game."
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