Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard ready for comeback
NORMAN, Okla. (AP) Sterling Shepard had one of the best seasons for an Oklahoma receiver. Also, one of the most disappointing.
The speedster was among the nation's leaders with more than 900 yards in his first seven games, including a career-high 215 yards receiving against TCU and a school-record 15 receptions against Kansas State. He posted two of the top five receiving yardage games in school history in a three-game span.
Things fell apart when he pulled his groin at the end of a 46-yard catch on the first play against Iowa State. He missed the next game against Baylor and had problems the rest of the year as he tried to return prematurely.
''It was tough, but that's a part of the game,'' he said. ''Injuries are going to happen. You don't know when they're going to happen. They just kind of sneak up on you. I was trying to come back every week, just because of how frustrating it was. I wanted to be out there with my brothers.''
With Shepard hobbled, Oklahoma's passing offense tanked. The Sooners threw for just 148 yards against Baylor, 133 against Texas Tech, 39 against Kansas, 120 against Oklahoma State and 103 against Clemson. For perspective, Shepard averaged 130 yards receiving in his first seven games, but the Sooners as a team averaged just 109 passing in their final five.
Even with the injury, Shepard still was a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award, which is given to the nation's best receiver. Now a senior, Shepard is committed to coming back better than before after adding strength in the weight room while injured, then maintaining it as he prepared for his final year.
''Shep has been a beast this whole offseason,'' receiver Durron Neal said. ''He was very disappointed he couldn't help us out last year by him going down. He did everything he could to come back. Just seeing him this offseason - we worked together this whole offseason - his leadership, his mentality, it's just been stay healthy, make big plays for this team and help us in the best way possible.''
Part of Oklahoma's late-season passing struggles came from quarterback Trevor Knight's neck injury, but another issue was the team's lack of depth at receiver. Oklahoma's No. 2 receiver last season, Neal, finished with just 42 catches for 513 yards.
Now, a new wave of players has come in to help, including Dede Westbrook, one of the nation's top junior college receivers last year. He looks forward to helping Shepard after leading the nation with 1,487 yards and 13 touchdowns receiving for Blinn Community College in 2014.
''Whatever I can do to help Sterling, or whoever else is out there, that's what I'm going to do,'' Westbrook said. ''It's just the competitive nature in me that I'm going to compete with some of the top dogs no matter who they are. That's just how I was raised and brought up. I know Sterling, he's going to do his best to do what he has to do, and so is Durron and everybody else.''
Shepard is excited about playing in the Air Raid offense under new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. While Riley held the same position at East Carolina, former walk-on Justin Riley shattered Oklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles' FBS record for career receptions with 387. Shepard said he knows all about Broyles and likes the idea of playing in an offense that can produce those kinds of numbers.
''It definitely gives you a little spark,'' Shepard said. ''I can't wait for the season. We're going to catch a lot of balls.''
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .