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Fast & Furious
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Speedy wide receiver Dede Westbrook has become the Sooners’ go-to guy
Dede Westbrook had been waiting for this moment.
Oklahoma’s senior wide receiver — wearing a big smile on his face — was being peppered with questions after producing a record-setting performance in the Sooners’ 45-40 victory over hated rival Texas.
Not only did Westbrook establish a new single-game school record with 232 receiving yards, he finished the game with 10 total catches and three touchdowns.
So obviously, he was one of the media’s focal points of the postgame discussion.
What was it like to have such a big game?
Was it difficult being patient while waiting for a memorable moment in his last season with the Sooners?
And most importantly...
What does it feel like to finally be healthy?
Westbrook’s health started as a well-guarded secret by the coaching staff during the season’s first month. But after turning in less-than-memorable performances against Houston, Louisiana-Monroe and Ohio State, the puzzle became a bit easier to decipher.
Entering the season, Oklahoma’s offense needed to fill the void left by Sterling Shepard, who graduated on to the NFL and catching passes from New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. Westbrook — the returning Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year — automatically inherited that role.
His biggest jump came during an off week between the loss to the Buckeyes and the conference opener against TCU, while continuing to wait for a hamstring pull to fully heal.
“That was like the crazy part about it. Going into the bye week, of course, everyone knows I wasn't healthy at all. Not even a little bit,” said Westbrook, who earned Big 12 Player of the Week honors after the Red River game. “The bye week — we were off for, what, three or four days? And I really got that chance to just sit at home, watch TV and relax. Came back Monday to practice and really didn't feel much of anything.
“I told our team trainers and they were excited about the whole deal. They couldn't believe it. But I guess it’s showing now.”
Westbrook exploded for monster games in victories over TCU, Texas and Kansas State — amassing 574 yards and 8 touchdowns on 26 catches — and all now seems well in Sooner Nation.
As the September weeks went by, Westbrook had no choice but to stay patient. It was difficult for him, especially given the high expectations that he had entering the season.
“I just couldn't move the way I wanted to move without feeling sharp pains in my hamstring,” said Westbrook. “Pulled muscles are always a problem. It always affects you. This is my first pulled muscle ever, so everyone I read up about having hamstrings or any type of groin problems, I feel for them. It's very annoying.”
The hamstring injury came in early August when Westbrook was lined up against All-Big 12 cornerback Jordan Thomas.
“I remember we were in the indoor facility the second day of camp. It was towards the end of practice,” said Westbrook. “They sent me on a vertical ball, and I knew for a fact I wasn't getting the ball because Jordan Thomas was at least 12 to 15 yards off me. Just trying to run by him, eat up his cushion and get by him, that caused me to strain my hamstring a little bit.”
Westbrook knew immediately that something was wrong. He limped off the practice field and checked in with the training staff.
“With the great trainers we have here, they stayed by my side, they kept me in the training room getting treatment,” said Westbrook, pointing to their efforts as one of the main reasons he’s back healthy and playing at a high level.
Offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley’s arrival on campus coincided with Westbrook in January 2015.
Looking back, it’s impressive at how quickly both made an impact for the Sooners.
Riley didn’t sign Westbrook, but had heard a lot about him from recruiting coordinator Cale Gundy.
The Air Raid offense would need playmakers and the 6-foot, 176-pounder from Cameron, Texas, fit the bill.
In a straight line, Westbrook is arguably the fastest player on the roster. After averaging 191.0 receiving yards in the first three Big 12 games in October, opposing secondaries can attest to that fact.
“I watched him on film when we got here and certainly liked what we saw as far as the explosion,” said Riley. “The thing that was nice to see in person that you never know about fast guys when you recruit fast guys that are only that, fast. They're not great football players. The thing that was cool to see when we first got her was this guy had football skills too to go along with track speed and that's a hard combination to find and when you get it, it can be pretty good.”
Added head coach Bob Stoops: “I don’t know what the clock says, but he is as fast as he needs to be. He has great speed. He’s really hard to overthrow for that reason. He’s finally back to where he’s feeling 100 percent and it’s obvious.
“He can turn short ones into big ones and he can get behind people as well. And is really a sharp route runner too.”
Oklahoma’s success with Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon has helped open up the Sooners’ air attack. The threat forces defenses to respect the run game and opens things up for one-on-one matchups with many of the wide receivers.
Westbrook is benefitting from the run game. His first five touchdown receptions in 2016 were all at least 40 yards.
“It's always nice to have that one guy that if they decide to load it up and come get in your face that you know can win on a weekly basis,” said Riley. “Some people try to out number you in the run game by playing different types of zone coverage where you can pick them apart, different holes, different players, but you've got to have those couple of guys that when talented people come get in your face, they can win. And if you do that, you make the answers to defend you, you limit those quite a bit.”
Quarterback Baker Mayfield targeted Westbrook with 18 throws during the opening two Big 12 games. The pair connected on 17 of those pass attempts, which has allowed Westbrook to develop into a nice safety net for the junior signal-caller.
Against TCU, the Sooners trailed 21-7 early — but Mayfield connected with Westbrook on TD throws of 67 and 40 yards to help propel OU to victory. At the Cotton Bowl, OU trailed Texas in the third quarter when Mayfield hooked up with Westbrook for a pair of scores from 42 and 47 yards to give their team the lead for good. And in the win over K-State, Westbrook caught a 26-yard TD pass from Joe Mixon before hauling in a pair of second-half scoring tosses from Mayfield to seal it.
It’s a relationship similar to what Mayfield had with Shepard last fall.
“I think it’s always clicked. This season, he’s finally healthy, and you guys have been able to see what he’s been able to do,” said Mayfield. “It’s pretty special when he gets the ball in his hands. It’s good to have him healthy, and just keep getting him the ball. He makes good things happen.”
Westbrook is a junior college transfer from Blinn (Texas) Community College where he averaged 185 receiving yards per game in his sophomore season. He knew that getting to those numbers would be difficult immediately at OU. But it’s left him with a goal.
“It's been a serious process. At (Blinn), I was a lot more talented than everyone else at the junior college level. That was the reason why I was so effective,” said Westbrook. “Then to come over to Division-I football, everyone has the exact same mindset and talent that you have. Therefore, you have to work more on technique.”
Westbrook’s time at Oklahoma is coming to an end. His two-year stay has seemed short, but he’s already etched his name in the record book for most receiving yards by an OU player in a single game. Plus he’s leaving a legacy not only on the field, but with the younger wide receivers.
“The relationship that I have with the younger guys — they can pretty much call me for anything, no matter what it is or where I'm at,” said Westbrook. “Yeah, football matters, but outside of football is really the key part.”
If he could go back 12 months and give his old self a bit of advice, what would he say?
“Relax. Let the game come to you. Just pretty much be ready, your time's coming,” said Westbrook. “I feel like every dog has its day, and some people in this business ... they're not ready to showcase their abilities, even though they have them. It's just not the time, so when that time comes, be ready.”
(Editor's Note: This story appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Sooner Spectator. For more information, call 405-364-4515)