NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Last year, Oklahoma’s passing game was stagnant when Sterling Shepard wasn’t involved.
The Sooners have no such problem this year.
Shepard is still Oklahoma’s top receiver, but he’s got plenty of help. Dede Westbrook, Mark Andrews, Jarvis Baxter, Durron Neal and Joe Mixon all have proven themselves capable targets. The result is that the 15th-ranked Sooners (3-0) take the nation’s eighth-ranked passing offense into Saturday’s Big 12 opener against No. 23 West Virginia (3-0).
Quarterback Baker Mayfield appreciates the fact that Shepard’s teammates are making strides.
"It makes you comfortable back in the pocket," Mayfield said. "It’s not only him (Shepard), but we have other guys who can do it, too."
Mayfield passed for 487 yards against Tulsa in Oklahoma’s 52-38 win two weekends ago. Shepard, who caught eight passes for 144 yards in that game, appreciates the fact that the other receivers can get the job done.
"It just gets the momentum going and it shows everybody that we have a lot of guys that can go and they can do it," Shepard said. "Feeding the ball around everybody — Baker did a great job, coach did a great job calling game and that’s the reason why we were able to light up the scoreboard."
Shepard has 18 catches for 286 yards and two touchdowns this season. He had two dramatic catches against Tennessee — one to force overtime, and the other to win the game.
Now, opponents must account for the other receivers.
Westbrook, a junior college transfer, has 12 catches for 175 yards and a score. Neal has become more dependable this season with 12 grabs for 173 yards. Mixon, a running back who sometimes lines up as a receiver, made a splash by catching three passes for 115 yards in the season opener against Akron, including a 76-yard touchdown reception.
Baxter walked on before this season and already has earned a scholarship. The junior had Oklahoma’s first reception this season in the opener against Akron on his way to five receptions for 51 yards.
"He’s going to continue to get better," Oklahoma receivers coach Cale Gundy said. "The best thing about Jarvis is he is a really, really good kid. He’s very passionate. He wants to get better. Anytime you’ve got players like that you’ve got a chance to be pretty good."
Mark Andrews, a redshirt freshman, caught two touchdown passes against Tulsa, the first two scoring grabs of his career. The 6-foot-6, 247-pound tight end is earning his way onto the field.
"He’s a guy that, the better he becomes as a blocker, the more that we can use him, and you see him in the open field, like you did the other day," Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley said. "But a tight end’s got to block first, or he’s not worth putting in there. He’s making more strides, and that’s why he’s getting more opportunities."
Jeffery Mead has a touchdown reception and running back Samaje Perine has one, too. There will be plenty of chances for the pass catchers to excel on Saturday.
"If you’re sharp, there’s going to be opportunities to make a lot of plays, and if you’re not sharp, even just off by a little bit, a good defense can make you pay for it," Riley said. "That’s what we’ll face Saturday."