NORMAN, Okla. — Last season, Oklahoma’s explosive offense was akin to a string quartet, composed of four special skill talents.
Three of those are gone. And yet, the Sooners have been even more devastating offensively this season, behind a full orchestra of versatile playmakers, and the best conductor in the game, quarterback Baker Mayfield, utilizing his array of options to historically efficient levels.
The Sooners are No. 1 in offensive efficiency, tops in total offense and are scoring almost 45 points a game.
“It’s unbelievable how explosive we are, and how many weapons we have,” said Mayfield, who has taken over the Heisman Trophy conversation while taking the Sooners to the brink of the College Football Playoff with the help of perhaps the deepest offensive skill contingent in college football.
Veteran tight end Mark Andrews and fullback Dimitri Flowers have been the cornerstones around Mayfield. Transfer receivers Marquise Brown and Jeff Badet, meanwhile, have brought blow-by speed out wide.
“I could go on and on about how many guys that could be that guy potentially on any given night,” Mayfield said. “We have very talented guys, a great supporting cast, and obviously when you have a great offensive line, it’s a pretty good mix right there.”
Considering OU lost a Heisman finalist at receiver in Dede Westbrook, the school’s all-time leading rusher in Samaje Perine and the nation’s second-best all-purpose back in Joe Mixon off last year’s team, it’s been astonishing how Lincoln Riley has retooled his attack into the nation’s best in his first year as head coach — even with arguably the best offensive line in the country and inarguably the best quarterback.
Coming into the season, OU had only one player who had more than 20 receptions last year. And the Sooners had a running back committee that had combined for just 54 career carries.
Yet despite not having a proven bell-cow back or a primary receiver, the Sooners have thrived.
“It’s been one of the deepest skill groups I’ve ever been around,” Riley said. “And our guys have had a solid ability to rise when they get their opportunities.”
In Saturday’s 38-20 victory over sixth-ranked TCU, it was Anderson, who wasn’t even in OU’s regular running back rotation until mid-October. Since the Texas game, Anderson has averaged 148 yards rushing per game since. Against TCU, Anderson became the fourth player in the last 20 seasons to finish with at least 125 rushing yards, 125 receiving yards and four touchdowns in one game.
“Once I started getting a rhythm it started clicking,” Anderson said. “Once I got my opportunity, I made the most of it.”
The Sooners always believed in Anderson’s potential. But he missed his freshman year with a season-ending knee injury. Then last year, he suffered a neck injury that sidelined him for another season.
As a result, the Sooners brought him back slowly. Finally himself again, Anderson has been as prolific as any back in the Big 12 the last month.
“We thought he was going to get there,” Riley said. “Even in the spring we were incredibly cautious with him just because we wanted to give him as much time to heal as possible, so he went non-contact, which, for a back, is almost like not playing or practicing. … That Texas game is when things kinda turned. He made some big plays in that game. He got some confidence. We got some confidence in him. And it’s just grown and grown.”
Brown has grown, too, figuratively if not also literally.
The junior college transfer showed up to Norman in the spring weighing 144 pounds. But he’s overcome a lack of mass with game-changing speed.
Two weeks ago at Oklahoma State, Brown broke out with a school-record 265 receiving yards, as the Sooners prevailed in a wild 62-52 shootout.
“He can go inside, outside — he’s so fast,” Mayfield said. “He’s a difference-maker with that speed.”
Others have proven to be difference-makers at different moments, as well.
In just his second college appearance, Sermon helped seal OU’s win over Ohio State with 62 rushing yards and a late touchdown grab that helped the Sooners pull away. Two weeks later, he followed that up with 148 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the ground — all in the fourth quarter — to salt away OU’s win at Baylor.
Yet Sermon hasn’t been the only true freshman to give the Sooners a major boost. A former ESPN 300 signee, whom the Sooners beat out Alabama and Texas for, Lamb has consistently come up big, as well, with a team-high six touchdown catches.
“A very talented kid,” Riley said. “Pretty mature player for being as young as he is. He’s a competitor. He’s not afraid of the moment. The ceiling is high.”
The constancy of Andrews and Flowers, however, has given the youngsters the luxury of picking their spots.
Primarily a lead blocker in the past, Flowers has elevated his game into being a playmaker, with four touchdowns rushing and four receiving. Andrews has gone from being a red-zone specialist previously to maybe the best all-around, pass-catching tight end in the country, underscored by his game-winning, 59-yard touchdown grab against Texas.
“They’ve become much more versatile, which has allowed us to play them more,” Riley said. “They’re guys that can give us some good matchups on the field. They’re both big, pretty physically imposing guys, guys that are pretty effective in the blocking game and very skilled in receiving. They’re great matchup guys, smart kids and they’ve done a great job for us.”
So too has the rest of the supporting cast, which, with Mayfield leading them, has formed an unstoppable attack.
The band hasn’t missed a beat.