CHRISTIAN CAPLE

UW Huskies camp thoughts: Rome Odunze and other UW ‘freaks’

Aug 17, 2023, 12:24 PM

UW Huskies Rome Odunze...

Rome Odunz of the UW Huskies reacts against the Colorado Buffaloes on Nov. 19, 2022. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

SEATTLE — The No. 57-ranked player on Bruce Feldman’s annual “Freaks List” held a post-practice throwing session with the JUGS machine on Wednesday. UW Huskies star receiver Rome Odunze first caught a series of short passes with only his right hand, then squared up to his robot quarterback to pluck a series of balls with two hands, out in front of his body, before retrieving an after-workout snack from the nutrition staff and chatting with reporters.

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Odunze’s athletic prowess isn’t much of a secret. He led the Pac-12 in receiving last season, was a state-champion sprinter in high school and has been widely included on preseason All-America teams; on Tuesday alone, ESPN ranked Odunze as the 20th-best player in college football, and 247Sports placed him 33rd.

Feldman’s “Freaks List,” though, is a different kind of honor. As defined by Feldman, who currently works for The Athletic, the list seeks to “spotlight the players whose athleticism blew the minds of folks inside their own college football programs.”

As fellow receiver Jalen McMillan said of Odunze this summer: “He can wake up at six in the morning, do a backflip out of bed and sprint to the stadium if he wanted to.” Odunze ran a 4.34-second 40-yard dash this offseason after gaining 10 pounds, part of his professed desire to play healthier and do more with the ball in his hands.

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UW players have shown up on Feldman’s list before. Last year, linebacker Cam Bright checked in at No. 81. Three players made it in 2021: cornerbacks Kyler Gordon and Trent McDuffie at Nos. 39 and 40, and outside linebacker Ryan Bowman at No. 64. Gordon was No. 14 on the list in both 2020 and 2019. Feldman wrote this year that fifth-year junior offensive lineman Troy Fautanu — a former high-school volleyball player who clocked a 5.1-second 40-yard dash at 6-4, 315 this offseason — nearly made the list, too.

I wanted to ask Odunze after Wednesday’s practice: if he had to identify a few teammates for a UW-centric “Freaks List,” who would he choose?

“I’ve got to shout out Mike (Penix) for his freak nature,” Odunze said. “Y’all ain’t seen him run yet, but he’s like Usain Bolt. He can really run, now.

“I would definitely say (edge rusher) Bralen (Trice). Bralen’s a bit of a freak, just how strong he is, his center of gravity. All those guys on the d-line are some freaks of nature. I’ve got to shout out Troy. It’s hard, man. If you’re here, you’re kind of a freak athlete, in my opinion. All these boys are really good. I would say Troy, too, just because of his calf size. That boy got big ol’ calves.”

(Fun fact: Penix ran the 200 meters in 22.89 seconds as a sophomore in high school, and long-jumped 21 feet.)

Odunze’s responses closely aligned with the choices made by offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb, who also submitted Trice, Penix and Fautanu, plus another UW receiver.

“Ocho. Trice. I think he’s a freak,” Grubb said. “I wish he’d just take practice off sometimes. Troy Fautanu I think fits that. Jalen McMillan, his ability to run and separate and just instincts. Sometimes it’s not just physical skills, it’s what guys see and how they think and how fast they can play, and I see that with Jalen all the time. Mike, definitely his vision and how he can play. Those would be the top guys off the top of my head.”

There is one other player on Washington’s roster I might submit for consideration: sixth-year senior defensive tackle Ulumoo Ale. In fact, a few years back, when Bruce and I were colleagues, he asked if there were any Washington players who I thought merited inclusion on the list. Even then, I submitted Ale, considering his combination of size — he was listed then at 6-foot-6 and 352 pounds — and athletic ability. As former UW defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike once put it: “Visually, it looks crazy. Someone his size should not be able to move that quick.” Based on his size, position and high-school track-and-field performance, one recruiting service assigned Ale its highest possible athleticism score. He was a heavyweight Golden Gloves boxing champion and played rugby as a kid growing up in Australia.

Ale spent his first four college seasons as an offensive lineman before switching to d-line last year. He is in line for his most action yet on that side of the ball, carving out a starting job throughout this spring and summer. We’ll see if this is the year Ale’s on-field performance might draw more attention to his athletic profile.

One more name to keep in mind for the future: third-year sophomore edge rusher Zach Durfee. He immediately impressed teammates with some of his weight-room numbers this offseason, and while it’s unclear if Durfee will be eligible to play this season, coaches are pretty clearly excited about his potential.

One UW Huskies receiver you might not see as much this season

Senior Giles Jackson, the former Michigan transfer who finished fifth on the team in receptions and receiving yards in 2022. Grubb said Jackson is recovering from a thumb injury — he didn’t take any reps during Tuesday’s open practice — and left open the possibility that Jackson could redshirt in order to preserve a year of eligibility and return next season.

“He’s getting that checked right now,” Grubb said, “so it kind of depends on that, because he does have another year left.”

Players can appear in up to four games and still redshirt, so it’s still possible Jackson could contribute here or there. A 2019 recruit, Jackson played in the 2019, 2021 and 2022 seasons, but the 2020 pandemic eligibility pause means he has two years to use his final season of eligibility.

“I think we’ve got to be totally open to all options,” Grubb said. “I think we’ve got a deep room, and if Giles isn’t getting on the field or is injured, you’d love to get him back for another year, because he’s a fantastic player.”

It appears certain the UW Huskies will go five deep at receiver even without Jackson. Odunze, McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk are established as the top three, and sophomore Germie Bernard and redshirt freshman Denzel Boston have at times dominated practice this camp.

Bernard might be the UW offensive player not enough people are talking about. Formerly a four-star recruit out of Henderson (Nev.) Liberty, Bernard committed to former coach Jimmy Lake and signed his letter of intent with current coach Kalen DeBoer. When former receivers coach Junior Adams left for a job at Oregon, though, Bernard asked out of his LOI and instead enrolled at Michigan State.

After one season in East Lansing — he appeared in 12 games with seven catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns — Bernard transferred back to UW. He seemed a natural fit in the Huskies’ offense even during spring practices, and has continued to make big plays throughout preseason camp. Just on Tuesday, he caught two touchdown passes from backup quarterback Dylan Morris — one about 47 yards, the other from 3 yards — and accounted for another splash play that covered roughly 60 yards.

“If we were playing a game tomorrow, I would have no problem with Germie being out there catching a third down,” Grubb said. “… As things become more clear to him and he hears terminology and things like that — he thinks faster, plays faster — he’s a fantastic player, and I think (the) sky’s the limit for Germie.

“He’s very much a J.P. (Polk) kind of guy — a true Z, a route runner, a good blocker, can still hit you in the deep shot on play action. But like today, we had him out in some 1-on-1 opportunities, and (he was) winning like J-Mac would. So we’re trying him in a lot of different spots.”

Watch out for Bernard in run-after-catch situations, too. He says it’s a point of pride.
His one season at Michigan State didn’t yield many highlight plays, but it still provided valuable intel on the college experience.

“Just learning from the older guys like Jayden Reed and Tre Mosley and Keon Coleman,” Bernard said. “It was very beneficial playing that first year at a different school — not really playing, but just watching and observing.”

The final word on Penix’s three-day rest from taking team reps at practice, from the quarterback himself: “We were doing a lot of lifting at that time, and just a lot of throwing. So I was just making sure my arm stayed fresh, so whenever the season comes, I’m 100 percent. Nothing wrong. You see me now, I’m doing everything I was doing before. It was all good. Just a little bit of soreness. Nothing that’s hurting nobody.”

Indeed, Penix returned to participate in UW’s Saturday scrimmage, and took all the reps with the No. 1 offense during Tuesday’s open practice — including a couple of signature Penix throws.

This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the new home for Christian Caple’s full UW Huskies football coverage. Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.

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