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2023 Positional Preview – Wide Receivers

Part 5 of the 2023 Positional Preview finds us with the newest face on the Sooners sideline. Emmett Jones joins the OU staff looking to resurrect the wide receiver room.
Super Senior Drake Stoops looks to lead the next wave of Sooner stars. Photo by Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The Room

Projected Depth Chart

POSSTARTER2ND STRING3RD STRINGDEPTH
WR-XNic AndersonJalil FarooqJayden GibsonJJ Hester
WR-ZAndrel Anthony, Jr.Jaquaize PettawayBrenen ThompsonDJ Graham
WR-YGavin FreemanDrake StoopsLV Bunkley-Shelton

2022 Stats

PLAYERTEAMRECYDSYPCREC TDCARYDSRU TD
Jalil FarooqOU3746612.65151400
Jaquaize PettawayHS105187617.916
Brenen ThompsonTexas13232.00
Andrel Anthony, Jr.Mich78011.41
Nic Anderson (RS)OU155.00
Jayden GibsonOU11212.00
Gavin FreemanOU34615.307711
Drake StoopsOU3939310.138480
LV Bunkley-SheltonOU22412.00250
Marvin Mims was the lone bright spot at WR in 2022. Photo by Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman

2022 Recap

Similar to RB, gone is the dominant statistical performer in the room. Marvin Mims, on the heels of his first 1,000 yard season, exits Norman 8th all time in career yards for the OU record books. While many had hoped for a bit more of a dominant outside man after his incredible freshman season, Mims accrued those kind of statistics in only three years in Norman. What will especially be missed is his very impressive 19.5 yards/catch in his career, as he showed he could take the top off the defense and keep safeties honest with his 4.38 forty time at the combine. What’s interesting to note though, is the boom/bust nature when you split Mims routes by depth of target. In 2022, in 33 targets beyond 20 yards, only 13 were completed (39.4%), yielding an absolutely WILD 46.3 yards/catch on those targets. Moreover, all 6 of his touchdowns were in those 13 catches. Under 20 yards, Mims managed a meager 11.7 yards/catch on 54 targets. While we will be looking for a deep threat replacement, having more balance may be one of the areas that could help take Dillon Gabriel to the next level at QB.

As for the rest of the room’s stats? Pretty rough considering Brayden Willis was essentially WR2 by the stats, and Jalil Farooq, Drake Stoops and Theo Wease were the only receivers with over 100 yards receiving at 466, 393 and 378, respectively. While Farooq and Stoops were more of the chain movers, at 10-12 yards/catch, Wease also exits stage right to Missouri having less chances but still a very solid 19.9 yards/catch. But as a whole, there is a lot of room for replacement and improvement in 2023.

What is so interesting in looking back, is dissecting the back breaking drops that we remember possibly making the difference in so many of the tight games. Perhaps it’s because the margin was thinner, and we saw the results when we didn’t have a top 3 offense to cover up our mistakes, but would you believe me if I told you our drop rate last season was actually better than most of the Riley era offenses?

Drop percentage rate, by season, based upon total drops divided by total targets.

Perhaps former WR coach Dennis Simmons was not knocked enough for his development during his years on a Sooner sideline, although he does have the CeeDee Lamb data point in his pocket. Marquise Brown and Michael Woods II are also rostered by NFL squads, but each only played under Simmons for two years and one year, respectively. After Simmons bolted Norman in the California caravan, the cupboard was relatively bare as far as production and developed talent are concerned, leading to the woes described above. Three transfers then followed; Mario Williams hitched a ride with Simmons to Los Angeles, Jadon Haselwood found a former high school coach at Arkansas, and Cody Jackson departed Norman after less than a year.

Adding fuel to the fire, new position coach Cale Gundy divorced the program before the season even started, vaulting off-field assistant L’Damien Washington into a position coaching role just a few short years into his coaching career.

Without strong leadership, and without a lot of options, the WR room didn’t get started on the right foot in 2022.

Emmett Jones’ first year in Norman. Photo by Ray Bahner/OU Daily

2023 Projection

Looking forward, possibly the biggest jump year over year? Having a bonafied WR coach on the sidelines and on the practice field pushing this room to get better every day. Emmett Jones comes to Norman by way of Texas Tech after being a long time established Texas high school football coach, which is already paying off on the recruiting trail. Jones had a knack for finding diamonds in the rough, and turning multiple three star recruits into NFL draft picks, from Keke Coutee and Dylan Cantrell during his first stint in Lubbock, to Erik Ezukanma and eventually stud freshman Jerand Bradley, who will most likely join their ranks. OU fans are hoping for some of that magic to transfer over to a room that needs a severe influx of development, as the recruiting stars next to most of the names in the room trounce what he was working with at Tech.

Based on offseason reports, there is optimism that Jones is pushing them to heights they haven’t reached in college.

Out are Mims and Wease, in are upcomers Gavin Freeman, Nic Anderson, and Jayden Gibson, hoping to show out with their first real chances for snaps. Added from the portal are speedsters Andrel Anthony, Jr. from Michigan and Brenen Thompson from Texas, both with sub 4.4 speed that can stretch the defense similar to Mims. And possibly the brightest new face of the room belongs to incoming blue-chip recruit Jaquaize Pettaway, who owns a 10.26 seconds 100M time, which might make him the fastest WR in the room on day one. If there is one thing Emmett Jones can’t blame any lack of success on, it’s speed in his room.

Historically, in the Jeff Lebby offense, he has had a clear WR1 go for over 1,000 yards, with a slew of counterparts trailing in the 300-600 yard range. The problem with that, who is most likely to make the leap in the OU room?

Returning in 2023 are 5th year senior Drake Stoops, senior DJ Graham, redshirt junior LV Bunkley-Shelton, junior Jalil Farooq, junior JJ Hester, true sophomore (and now scholarship athlete) Gavin Freeman, sophomore Jayden Gibson, and redshirt freshman Nic Anderson.

Stoops leads the room with 80 career receptions. Bunkley-Shelton caught 44 balls in his first two years at Arizona State, but only managed 2 catches all of 2022. Jalil Farooq is just behind with 41. JJ Hester caught 12 balls (2 TD, 19 ypc) in his redshirt freshman season at Missouri, only to manage 1 in his first year in Norman. The rest of the returners combine for 5 total career catches among them. If you only take catches in a Sooner uniform, the group has 8 total catches, excluding Stoops and Farooq.

If you brought in Emmett Jones for his teaching abilities, here’s your chance to see that bet pay off.

While the experience (and development) up until this point is lacking, there’s a lot to be hopeful for in 2023. For one, there is a legitimate wide receivers coach in place. And there is one “pro” vet in the room, as Reggie Pearson, Jr. explained in his first podcast episode – Drake Stoops. If anything, the abilities of Jones and the expectations of Stoops should help progress the unit.

And there is talent, too. JJ Hester, Bunkley-Shelton, Jalil Farooq, Jayden Gibson, and Nic Anderson were all mid-to-high four star recruits. Bunkley-Shelton caught 33 balls in 2021. And from what we’ve been hearing, former in-state walk-on Gavin Freeman just might be the most explosive of the bunch.

But perhaps no receiver on the roster has the first round ceiling of Nic Anderson. After spending his first season in Norman banged up, the second year man from Katy is poised to break out, and he looks fantastic in clips put out by OU.

A dream scenario for 2023? Nic Anderson, Gavin Freeman, and Andrel Anthony, Jr. (more on him in a bit) set the standard for this room.

Something tells me we won’t be frustrated with this group in 2023.

Newcomer Andrel Anthony, Jr. brings explosiveness to the room. Photo by Julia Schachinger/The Michigan Daily

New Names & the Rest of the Room

As if those former four star recruits weren’t enough to get excited about under some real coaching, Brent Venables, Jeff Lebby, and Emmett Jones went out and added two big-time transfers in Andrel Anthony, Jr. and Brenen Thompson from Michigan and Texas, respectively.

Andrel Anthony, Jr. departed Ann Arbor after two inconsistent and injury-riddled seasons. After breaking out as a freshman in 2021 with 12 catches for 248 yards (20.7 per) and 3 TDs, Anthony managed only 7 catches for 80 yards while battling various lower body injuries. Seeking a fresh start, there isn’t really a better offense to showcase Anthony’s size, speed, and abilities.

And speaking of speed, Brenen Thompson packed his sub-4.30 40 speed in a U-haul up I-35 from Austin. The world-class sprinter, who will also run track for Oklahoma, has posted career best 100m dashes under 10.20 seconds. A do-it-all athlete at Spearman (TX) High, Thompson played receiver, quarterback, running back, and return man. An injury forced him out of most of his senior season, but Thompson still entered Texas as a top 150 recruit and a highly productive athlete. Thompson appeared in 12 games last fall for the Longhorns, but managed only one catch for 33 yards against Oklahoma State. While his speed could really blow the top off this offense, Thompson will be brought along slowly as he refines his receiver skills under Jones.

The two new faces are joined by the one high school commitment that made it to Norman in Jaquaize Pettaway. Pettaway wrapped up his stellar high school career as the 56th overall player and 10th ranked WR in his class. And to keep up the theme of the newcomers, Pettaway has speed. Plenty of it. While not as elite as Thompson, the well-built 5’11”, 185 pound Pettaway has a personal best 10.27 100m this past spring while wrapping up his high school career. While he may come just short of Thompson in a footrace, Pettaway is much more refined as a receiver and much more developed from a physical standpoint. Pettaway is expected to make an early impact for Jeff Lebby.

360 expects a big year out of the former walk-on Gavin Freeman. Photo by Olivia Lauter/OU Daily

Projected Stats

So far in this series, we have broken down the last four seasons of production from the Jeff Lebby offense by position. At tight end, it appears that Lebby is incorporating the position into his offense more year-over-year. At wide receiver, it is the inverse:

POS2022 (OU)2021 (OM)2020 (OM)2019 (UCF)
WR154-1083 (20.1)76-1028 (13.5)86-1193 (13.9)72-1241 (17.2)
WR239-393 (10.1)26-392 (15.1)27-524 (19.4)51-717 (14.1)
WR337-466 (12.6)24-549 (22.9)27-379 (14.0)49-830 (16.9)
WR419-378 (19.9)22-346 (15.7)25-417 (16.7)19-448 (23.6)
WR53-46 (12.0)12-244 (20.3)15-376 (25.1)7-74 (10.6)
TOT152-2366 (15.6)160-2559 (15.9)180-2889 (16.1)198-3310 (16.7)

Total catches and yards from the top five receivers (by production) each season has declined from a height of 198 catches for 3,310 yards to 152 catches for 2,366 yards. That’s a drop of 46 receptions (more than any receiver not named Mims last year) and almost 1,000 yards! And the yards per catch have fallen each year too, from 16.7 all the way down to 15.6 this past season. Is this talent dependent?Lebby had now-Buffalo Bill Gabriel Davis in 2019, a deep catch waiting to happen, and now-New York Jet Elijah Moore in 2020, a smaller possession receiver. The two had over 72 catches each, but one averaged nearly 3.5 yards more per reception. What can Lebby do with such a diverse stable this year?

And from our quarterback preview, it has been noted that with the changes coming to the clock after first downs, we expect the total number of plays per game to drop, and total offensive production to drop roughly 5%. Based on this, we should expect that decline in wide receiver production to continue.

That being said, the efficiency by the entire group should be expected, due in part to the offensive line improvements, another year under Dillon Gabriel, and a much more stable wide receiver room. The yards per reception may continue to fall, or come in around last year’s average, but the distribution from WR1 to WR5 should be much more balanced. In fact, we’re predicting that Lebby won’t have a 1,000 yard receiver, but are still suggesting this group will be better than last year.

Here’s a look at what we think it could look like come December:

PLAYERRECYDSTDYPC
Andrel Anthony, Jr.48912719.0
Gavin Freeman41555413.5
Nic Anderson36594616.5
Drake Stoops24252310.5
Jaquaize Pettaway19256213.5
Jalil Farooq13176113.5
TOTAL18127442315.2

Part of the disconnect when putting these numbers together falls in the history of production from each player. Andrel Anthony only had 80 receiving yards last year, a year after posting 250 yards as a freshman. Injuries aside, it’s hard to look at that and imagine a jump to WR1. Nic Anderson hasn’t caught a single ball in college. Gavin Freeman has 4 more career carries than he does receptions. Besides Stoops, the only receiver with substantial snaps from last year is Farooq, and we have him dropping down the list behind Anthony, Anderson, Freeman, and perhaps even Pettaway. It doesn’t speak to Farooq as much as it does to the ceiling of the other guys. Length and speed work well in this offense, and Farooq is average in both metrics.

If Oklahoma fans are looking to the past in an effort to feel some sense of comfort that such a jump in production can be made, then they need not look much further than how receivers have developed in similar versions of the Oklahoma offense during past seasons at Baylor, UCF, and Ole Miss, as well as at Tennessee in a similar system under OC Alex Golesh. Since the 2013 season, the Briles offense has produced 12 receivers who have gone north of 1,000 yards in a season. Of those 12, only 4 players (Kendall Wright, Corey Coleman, KD Cannon, and Marvin Mims) had debut seasons there they exceeded 400 yards receiving. The stats instead tell a story of player development, where by year two, you begin to see big jumps in production (558 avg). And by year 3 on a college campus, special seasons tend to ensue, with the average jumping to all the way up to 1,120 yards for receivers within the offense who achieved at least one 1,000-yard season in their collegiate careers.

Jaquaize Pettaway has eyes on a big freshman season. Photo by Bob Nguyen/OU Daily

Wide Receiver Room Grades

2022 Grade: C+
Offseason Grade: A
2023 Projected Grade: A-

2022 was perhaps about as big of a trainwreck season from a position group as you’ll ever see. And with some unfortunate circumstances, the players are hardly to blame. A lost season under an interim rookie position coach thrust into a role covering a room that had lost their position coach Cale Gundy, receivers Mario Williams, Jadon Haselwood, and Cody Jackson to the portal, and every single quarterback to throw them the ball. While Marvin Mims thrived on the deep ball on his way to the Denver Broncos, there was a lot left to be desired from an uninspiring group. Enter veteran coach Emmett Jones and his NFL development pedigree, Michigan transfer Andrel Anthony, Jr., speedy Texas Longhorn Brenen Thompson, and all-world high school receiver Jaquaize Pettaway – about as productive as an offseason can get. Jones takes over a young but talented group that looks to shine this fall.

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