September 01, 2015

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) - Oklahoma is unveiling its Air Raid offense with only Sterling Shepard as a proven gamebreaker at receiver.

The 19th-ranked Sooners feel they have the talent and depth to make new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley's system work. They'll finally get to start finding out Saturday in the season opener against Akron.

Coach Bob Stoops said Shepard, Durron Neal and newcomer Dede Westbrook will be the top wide receivers. He said Jarvis Baxter and Jeffery Mead will rotate in, depending on the formation, and Dahu Green and A.D. Miller will play as true freshmen. Mark Andrews is the top tight end.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield likes them all.

''You can't double team one of them, because if they give us a one-on-one matchup, we're going to take advantage of it,'' he said. ''If they want to spread out and cover, we're going to run the ball. We have good answers right now.''

Shepard caught 51 passes for 970 yards and five touchdowns for last season's 8-5 team that lost 40-6 to Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Oklahoma's passing game came to a near halt while he struggled with a recurring hamstring injury late in the year.

Neal, who struggled to fill Shepard's role, feels he has much to prove this season.

''I hear stuff about this and that about me, how I'm not this and that,'' Neal said. ''But once you go into that locker room, you see your brothers and they see how hard you put in the work and the effort that you put in every day. That's all that matters. Just my mentality going into the season is being a playmaker. Simple as that. Be a playmaker.''

Westbrook caught 76 passes for 1,487 yards and 13 touchdowns in just eight games at Blinn (Texas) Community College last season. Mayfield looks forward to connecting with him.

''He's an explosive player,'' Mayfield said. ''He's a great guy. He's great off the press, tough to cover. You can ask any of our defensive backs, he's been a fast guy adjustment for them. Once he gets the ball in his hands, he's pretty fun to watch. Explosive plays, I would say, will come from him.''

Baxter is a 5-foot-11, 160-pound transfer from Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College. Green is a 6-5 leaper from nearby Westmoore High School who caught 14 touchdown passes as a high school senior. Miller, at 6-3, caught 18 touchdowns as a prep senior.

Andrews, a redshirt freshman, has impressed throughout camp. Mayfield likes his 6-foot-6 safety net.

''He's a big body,'' Mayfield said. ''He can box out and catch the ball over corners, and then he's faster than linebackers. So it's kind of a mismatch problem whenever you guard him.''

Mead, a 6-6 sophomore, has not caught a pass at Oklahoma, but he has improved his strength significantly since last year and gained Mayfield's trust.

''He's really come into his own and has made some big plays for us,'' Mayfield said. ''He's kind of realized he has the opportunity to have a bigger role, and he's taken advantage of it.''

Mayfield, a Texas Tech transfer who sat out last season, won the quarterback job over last year's starter, Trevor Knight, and 2014 backup Cody Thomas. Riley said picking Mayfield was a close call, adding that he "was able to minimize his mistakes a fraction more than those guys did and that's probably the biggest reason we made the decision."

As a freshman at Texas Tech, Mayfield passed for 2,315 yards and 12 touchdowns in eight games and was named Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year.

''No matter what people say about me, I'm going to believe in myself and as a quarterback you've got to believe in yourself," Mayfield said. "People are going to scrutinize you at all times. You've got a bunch of cameras in your face no matter what. You've got to do what you're capable of doing and believe in yourself no matter what.''

He'll be facing an Akron defense which is strong up the middle with linebacker Jatavis Brown and nose tackle Cody Grice, both seniors who were first-team All-Mid-American Conference selections last year. They helped the Zips lead the conference in points allowed (23.1 per game).

Offensively, there's a lot less certainty with fourth-year coach Terry Bowden yet to announce his starting quarterback, either incumbent Kyle Pohl or Tra'Von Chapman. Pohl threw for 2,189 yards in 10 games last year but had only nine touchdowns to eight interceptions and isn't much of a threat to run. Chapman is a sophomore transfer who sat out last year, but his athleticism and promise have some thinking he may soon permanently take the job.

Senior tailback Conor Hundley is likely to get the majority of the carries after rushing for an average of 5.2 yards on 104 attempts last season while splitting time with now-departed Jawon Chisholm.

The Zips are coming off a second straight 5-7 season but were picked by the media to finish second in the MAC East Division behind Bowling Green.

Akron has never faced Oklahoma or defeated an AP Top 25 team but certainly hasn't been overwhelmed by high-profile opponents recently. In 2013, the Zips lost 28-24 to 11th-ranked Michigan and 27-20 to No. 23 Northern Illinois - both on the road - and were down four points deep into the second half at Penn State last year before losing 21-3.

"We play well against our big opponents, our big away game opponents each year, but this will be especially tough," Bowden said. "This is an especially talented (Oklahoma) team in one of the most hostile environments in the country."

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