NORMAN — The last time Oklahoma football entered a season with so few experienced pass catchers, freshmen named Curtis Fagan, Damian Mackey, Antwone Savage, Trent Smith and Andre Woolfolk were called upon.
If the Sooners' 2012 newcomers at wide receiver and tight end are anything like those guys, Oklahoma might be OK after all.
The year was 1999, and Bob Stoops was preparing for his first season as the Sooners' coach. The only receiver back with any experience to speak of was senior Jarrail Jackson.
“For us, we were all just so damn happy to be in the mix so early,” Smith said. “The thought that we were freshmen never crossed our mind or entered our thinking about how successful we could be.”
If the indefinite suspensions of Trey Franks, Kameel Jackson and Jaz Reynolds last through the season opener — Sept. 1 at UTEP — Kenny Stills will be the only active receiver or tight end on the roster with a career NCAA Division I reception.
“I'm very excited that I get a chance to come in and contribute early,” said incoming freshman wideout Durron Neal. “I don't believe in pressure. When your number is called, that's when it's time for you to step up.”
True freshman Trey Metoyer showed his potential in April's spring game, when he grabbed six catches for 72 yards. In addition to Metoyer and Neal, OU signed freshmen Sterling Shepard and Derrick Woods, and junior college transfers Courtney Gardner and LaColtan Bester.
Gardner is still working to complete academic requirements and be cleared at OU, and Bester was signed just last weekend.
The Sooners also added three tight ends, and two of them — junior college transfer Brannon Green and freshman Taylor McNamara — enrolled early to participate in spring football.
There are, of course, key differences between 1999 and 2012.
“The talent level at OU is so much higher than it was when I played,” Smith said. “Just on paper, they are 10-times the team we ever were.”
Unlike this season, the Sooners had a new quarterback in 1999 — a junior-college transfer named Josh Heupel — offensive coordinator Mike Leach was installing a new offense and the Sooners were working to end a streak of five straight non-winning seasons.
“I think our naivety of being freshmen and sophomores when we accomplished all of that was probably in our favor,” Smith said. “It was a different time; hardly any of us had cell phones. We didn't really understand how much pressure was actually on us, and how much people in the state were looking to us to bring the glory back.”
The 2005 Sooners also brought back limited pass-catching experience, but senior wideout Travis Wilson and tight ends Bubba Moses and Joe Jon Finley made that group more seasoned than this one.
Shepard, as the son and nephew of former Sooners, is fully aware of Oklahoma's tradition and the microscope OU players live under.
“(Playing at OU) is something I've always wanted to do, since I was a little kid,” Shepard said. “Now it's just weeks away so it's definitely exciting. I've been trying to stay focused.
“(The suspensions are) disappointing. I looked up to those guys on the field and was looking forward to them teaching me some things.”
Shepard and Neal both said they expected to compete for playing time regardless.
“I was planning on coming in, working my butt off and doing what I was told,” Neal said. “Now that this happened, it's making me work 10 times harder to make sure I'm mentally and physically prepared.”
Fagan, Mackey, Savage, Smith and Woolfolk all contributed as freshmen and went on to become one of the best receiving groups Stoops has had in Norman. All five were integral on OU's 2000 national championship team as sophomores.
Mackey played until being forced to give up football during his junior season after suffering a series of concussions.
“We certainly weren't lacking for confidence (as freshmen),” Smith said, “but if you'd have told any of us that we were going to win the national championship within two years, I don't know that we would have believed you.”