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Oklahoma producing plenty of prospects projected to make it at the next level
Mark Andrews came to Oklahoma to be a wide receiver. But he will be going the NFL as a tight end.
The Sooners' first Mackey Award winner fits in the mold of OU's all-time greats, such luminaries as Jermaine Gresham and Keith Jackson. He's a classic mismatch for defenses -- too big for defensive backs, too fast for linebackers -- who combines a dishwasher's hands with a lumberjack's frame.
The NFL loves tight ends, and the NFL is going to love Mark Andrews.
Andrews is widely projected to be a first-round pick on April 26 because he's 6-foot-5, 254 pounds, and in three seasons in Norman, he caught 112 passes for 1,765 yards and 22 touchdowns. Andrews is a prototype modern tight end — big and strong enough to handle his business as a blocker on the edge, nimble enough to average 15.8 yards per catch in college, and savvy enough to play multiple positions.
"Being able to be this size and being able to catch the ball and move around and separate from DBs and linebackers has been a huge help," said Andrews. "And I think it shows this year because I'm definitely bigger, stronger, (and) I'm the same speed."
This year, Andrews led the Sooners with 62 catches for 958 yards and eight touchdowns. The OU receiving corps was led by Sterling Shepard and Dede Westbrook the previous two seasons, but with both of them off to the NFL, Andrews embraced a larger role in Lincoln Riley's first season as head coach.
"Obviously this year, the time (was) right for me," said Andrews. "I've gotten a lot of opportunities and (am) taking advantage of them."
Andrews, projected by ESPN's Mel Kiper as the second-best tight end in this draft, is one of a handful of Sooners expected to be taken in either the first or second round come April.
Joining him in declaring early for this year’s draft, as expected, is left tackle Orlando Brown. Brown, who stands 6-8 and plays comfortably at 345 pounds, also should be a first-round pick — some believe a contender for the No. 1 overall pick, though most project him a little lower, ranging from the first five picks to the middle of the first round.
Like Andrews, Brown was a three-year starter at OU, a key piece in the Sooners' three consecutive Big 12 championships and two College Football Playoff runs.
For Brown, playing in the NFL would hold an even more special meaning than usual. His father, the late Orlando Brown, played nine seasons in the league and left a lasting legacy.
"Hopefully, I have that opportunity to be a first-round pick," said Brown. "That's something he wanted, something I've always wanted, and something I set my goals for."
Three departing seniors — quarterback Baker Mayfield, linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and safety Steven Parker — also played significant roles in the Sooners' 2015-17 resurgence, and will find themselves on NFL rosters next season.
Mayfield is the most intriguing prospect. The 2017 Heisman Trophy winner and two-time Sporting News national player of the year, began his NFL preparation by getting ready to play in the Jan. 27 Senior Bowl.
It's considered a gamble for a proven quarterback to participate in a postseason all-star game, but Mayfield welcomes all challenges. In Mobile, he'll get up close and personal with NFL scouts who may have questions about his mannerisms — or his height (he carries 220 pounds on his 6-1 frame) or his arm strength.
“There are a lot of skeptical people out there who think I have character issues,” Mayfield told SiriusXM NFL Radio. “That’s why I’m doing (the Senior Bowl), to sit down and have a conversation with people, let them know I love the game of football and I’ll do anything to win.
“Quite frankly, I think that matters a lot more than anything else.”
The Denver Broncos’ staff, which is coaching the North Team at the Senior Bowl, picks at No. 5, is in the market for a quarterback and reportedly asked that Mayfield be placed on their team.
Numerous mock drafts have Mayfield going to the New York Jets with the sixth overall pick.
Okoronkwo also is drawing a lot of interest. A handful of mock drafts project “Obo” into the first round, though his limited role at OU may diminish his NFL chances.
Okoronkwo is still relatively new to the game and was cast as a pass-rushing specialist in college. He doesn’t have prototype size — he’s 6-1, 240 — too small to play defensive end in a 4-3 front and still a shade light for outside linebacker in a 3-4.
But he’s productive. His last two seasons at OU, Okoronkwo made 71 and 75 tackles, respectively, with 29 tackles for loss (17 this season) and 17 quarterback sacks. Okoronkwo’s superhuman efforts in October against Texas — a physical offense with a big, strong offensive line — and big performances against Ohio State and Georgia caught the eyes of NFL scouts and let them know that he can perform on an every-down basis at the next level.
Parker (6-1, 204) naturally expanded his role in four seasons in the OU secondary. A smart and silky smooth player who’s tougher than he looks (he didn’t miss a game due to injury) created seven turnovers in his college career, including the Sooners’ go-ahead touchdown on a fourth-quarter fumble return in the Rose Bowl against Georgia. He finished with 217 career tackles, including 60, 63 and 63 in each of the last three seasons.
Parker is rated as the 13th-best strong safety prospect by NFL Draft Scout.
It’s still early in the process — the NFL Scouting Combine starts on Feb. 27, and OU’s Pro Day is usually the first week in March — but plenty of other Sooners should get an NFL look during the upcoming offseason:
>Fullback Dimitri Flowers (6-2, 247) showed this season that he has the rare combination of good hands, good power and great athletic ability as well as an uncommon knowledge of the game that allows him to play up to five positions on the field in any given game.
>Wideout Jeff Badet (6-0, 178) had trouble both with being a consistent pass-catcher and staying healthy, but he also displayed a rare explosiveness and instinct with the football. He’ll need to muscle up a little more and show he can make plays to get a roster spot.
>Center Erick Wren (6-1, 306) is a former walk-on who started the Sooners’ last 24 games at center. Scouts will love his technique and his tenacity, and with a good showing at the combine and pro day, he could move onto the draft boards.
>Cornerback Jordan Thomas (6-1, 185) was once considered the Sooners’ best cornerback and a definite pro prospect, but he suffered a confidence setback during his senior year and scouts will be interested to gauge his desire to keep playing at the next level.
>Defensive end D.J. Ward had his best year after a high school career filled with transfers and a college career filled with anticipation and even a health scare. He started all 14 games this season and made 36 tackles, including 4.5 quarterback sacks.
>Defensive tackle Du’Vonta Lampkin, the former University of Texas signee, surprised the OU staff by declaring early for this year’s draft. He started two games this season and played in 12, finishing with 23 total tackles.
(Editor's Note: This story appears in the 2018 Bowl Review issue of Sooner Spectator. To read more or subscribe, call 405-364-4515.)