From Petersen to the portal: How UW Huskies built an elite offensive roster
Sep 22, 2023, 11:19 AM
(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
SEATTLE — He watched senior UW Huskies stars like Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin address the team and wondered, as a redshirting, walk-on tight end: “One day, when I go up there, what am I going to say?”
Jack Westover broke his collarbone two weeks into his senior year at Mount Si High School. Nobody recruited him. Jordan Paopao, then Washington’s tight ends coach, at least saw enough to keep in touch, and eventually invited Westover to join UW’s program as a walk-on. He was a scout-team star in 2018 and found a role as an H-back in 2019. Jimmy Lake put him on scholarship in 2020. Last season, he finished fourth on the team in receiving and played more snaps than any UW Huskies tight end.
And so on Friday night, at a hotel in Michigan, it was Westover’s turn to give his “Senior Dawg Talk,” as coach Kalen DeBoer calls it. The night before each game, a different senior — the roster lists 14 — speaks during a team meeting.
“I wrote a couple notes,” Westover said, “but I kind of let it ride, from the heart.”
He detailed his college journey, now in its sixth year and on its third head coach. How he grew up as a Husky fan, and what the school means to him and his family. Also: “For the younger guys, what things do you need to focus on if you want to do the things you want to do here?”
“You’ve got to know your fastball,” he told them. “You’ve got to know what makes you great, and that’s different for everybody.”
The next day, Westover caught three touchdown passes in Washington’s 41-7 blowout at Michigan State. He’d caught three in his career before Saturday. As Pac-12 play begins this weekend, a slew of NFL-bound receivers — including a few on his own team — are looking up at one name atop the Pac-12 leaderboard for touchdown catches: Jack Westover.
The nation’s most efficient offense came by its components in a variety of ways.
Among the 11 UW players who first took the field against Michigan State were six former four-star recruits, three transfers, one freshman and, indeed, one former walk-on. And while the UW Huskies’ most important player arrived via transfer last season, star quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is one of only three offensive starters who are not in at least their third year in the program. Seven of UW’s starters are in at least their fourth year (that number was eight before Matteo Mele’s injury, and nine before Cam Davis got hurt).
The Huskies’ 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022 recruiting classes are represented atop the depth chart. Most chose to play at UW when Chris Petersen was still head coach. One transferred in to play for Lake, and one originally committed to him. Two hail from Washington and two come from Nevada, while California, Arizona, Texas, Mississippi, Florida, Hawaii and Colorado supplied the rest.
With offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb at the controls — running a system refined by DeBoer throughout the past two decades — the Huskies lead all of FBS in yards per play (9.46) and averaged 46.7 points in three non-conference victories. Penix led the nation in passing yards per game last season, and he’s doing it again this year while completing more than 74 percent of his passes and averaging 11.9 yards per attempt, with 12 touchdowns. Rome Odunze leads the Pac-12 in receiving, and Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk each are averaging triple digits per game. Left tackle Troy Fautanu and right tackle Roger Rosengarten are likely NFL prospects.
All this two years after Washington averaged 21.5 points per game and fired its offensive coordinator midseason. Now, they’re positioned to pursue the greatest offensive season in school history.
He’s on the radio, plugging Epic Seats, the Seattle-based ticket brokerage. He’s on a line of trading cards produced by Panini America. He’s on T-shirts, via partnership with local retailer Simply Seattle. He’s on social media, leveraging his sponsorship with Beats by Dre to gift each of his teammates a pair of the headphones last month. And it’s anyone’s guess what Montlake Futures, UW’s independent donor collective, might direct toward Penix each month.
He is Washington’s first superstar of the NIL era, reaping the compensatory benefit as perhaps the Huskies’ greatest quarterback ever, depending upon your criteria.
The former Indiana transfer saw opportunity at Washington last season, rejoining DeBoer, his old offensive coordinator with the Hoosiers in 2019. Penix studied film of UW’s receivers and offensive linemen when he came for a visit — no tweets, no photoshoot, just business. Grubb and DeBoer had decided they needed a veteran transfer to compete with Dylan Morris and Sam Huard, and Penix’s availability proved fortuitous, even if each of his first four college seasons were cut short by injury.
“We believed in his skill set,” Grubb said. “We felt like the only limitation for Mike has ever been some of his injuries and getting dinged up.”
Grubb initially came to Fresno State as the offensive line coach, when Jeff Tedford hired DeBoer as offensive coordinator in 2017. After DeBoer left for the OC job at Indiana, Tedford promoted Grubb to OC, and he remained in that position when DeBoer returned as head coach in 2020.
When DeBoer was at Indiana, Grubb would pick his brain about the concepts he was running with Penix. Together at Fresno State, they developed the offense in a way that Grubb believed would suit Penix even better.
“Some of the passing emphasis we had in 2020 and 2021 — we thought Mike would fit really, really well with some of the vertical attacks we had,” Grubb said.
“I definitely watched a lot of film on him, prior to any of this.”
The acquisition of Penix almost immediately underscored why former UW athletic director Jen Cohen prioritized hiring a coach with an offensive background; the Huskies needed a quarterback, and DeBoer had connections at the position (including, you’ll recall, Jake Haener, who briefly entered the portal after DeBoer’s departure before choosing to stay at Fresno State).
Against Michigan State, Grubb said he gave Penix his highest single-game grade yet. Penix’s own assessment might double as an explanation for why he chose to return to Washington this season, rather than pursue the NFL Draft — a decision that could rank among the most pleasant surprises in UW athletics history.
“It’s a lot more left out there,” Penix said Tuesday. “We’ve been doing a lot of great things, and a lot of things we can build on each and every week, as well. We definitely haven’t played our best football yet.”
The receivers and tight ends
UW coaches had an obvious priority, Cooper Petagna said, for the 2020 recruiting class.
“We’ve got to flip the receiver room,” said Petagna, then UW’s director of player personnel, and currently a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports.
He felt the Huskies took a big step in 2019 by landing four-star prospect Puka Nacua in the February window, but they still needed more playmakers. McMillan, then a four-star, national top-40 prospect at Fresno (Calif.) San Joaquin Memorial, quickly shot to the top of their board.
“We had Jalen circled for a really long time, and were able to get him on campus early,” Petagna said. “He developed a relationship with (2021 signee) Sam Huard that really kind of took us the distance and put us over the finish line.”
Oklahoma and USC made McMillan’s final three, partially because both schools were open to allowing him to play baseball. Notre Dame wanted him, too. But on a June afternoon in 2019, while on campus for an unofficial visit, McMillan went into Petersen’s office by himself and, to the surprise of his family, committed to the Huskies.
The Petersen factor, Petagna said, can’t be ignored. UW’s assistants hustled and developed strong relationships and were integral to landing signatures, but: “Pete was the front door. As much as people really learned to love Washington, the thing that was getting them to the house was Chris Petersen.”
By the time McMillan committed, UW had grown enamored with another speedy, productive wideout they hoped to pair with him: four-star Las Vegas Bishop Gorman receiver Rome Odunze, who wound up the Gatorade State Player of the Year in Nevada.
Odunze’s recruitment, Petagna said, “didn’t make sense.”
Even now, he peruses Odunze’s high-school statistics and measurements and still doesn’t get it: More than 1,300 receiving yards, at 22.5 yards per catch, with 15 touchdowns as a junior, “and then the next year, he did the same thing.” … 6-foot-2-and-a-half, 194 pounds … a 6-foot-4-and-a-half wingspan … 10.67 seconds in the 100 meters, and a state-champion 200-meter time of 21.25 … “mid 4.5s” in the 40-yard dash, with a 4.0-second shuttle …
McMillan had similar high-school stats and track times, and, sure enough, commensurate attention from top programs. Odunze, not so much.
“You turned on the tape, and you saw this uber-productive player at one of the biggest powerhouse programs in the country,” Petagna said, “and for whatever reason, everybody was missing him.”
It’s not that big programs didn’t offer Odunze scholarships — he reported 32, and he was a four-star, top-300 recruit — but rather that relatively few power schools made him a priority. Oklahoma and then-coach Lincoln Riley were the exception. Duke and Miami were involved, too. “Outside that,” Petagna said, “he didn’t have a ton of heat.”
Both players were drawn in by Petersen and receivers coach Junior Adams, who is responsible for the recruitment of several key UW players (including sophomore Germie Bernard, though he spent last season at Michigan State). Adams left for Oregon shortly after DeBoer had chosen to retain him as part of his first assistant staff, and his replacement, JaMarcus Shephard, has proven an effective recruiter in his own right.
Adams, Petagna said, “embodied the vision that Chris Petersen had for the program. He knew how to radiate that in his own personal way.” Odunze said in December 2019 that it stood out, when Adams first called him, that the coach didn’t offer a scholarship. “He wanted to talk to my mom and my dad before we even had a discussion about playing there,” Odunze said.
His family sold on Petersen, Adams and UW, Odunze committed in August 2019.
“The coaches really bonded,” Odunze said that December. “I felt that in some other schools, too, but with Washington, it was really strong. And you could tell it was a culture there.”
It was the first time Odunze chose Washington. It would not be the last.
Each of UW’s 2020 commitments — Odunze and McMillan included — stuck with the program and signed their letters of intent after Petersen abruptly resigned in December 2019.
Lake, promoted to head coach, spent that month on airplanes, visiting each of UW’s committed prospects. Petersen did his part, too.
“He called every single kid. He called every single parent,” Petagna said. “He explained why he was leaving, and he also explained what he was leaving behind. At the end of the day, I think that went a really long way.”
The receiver duo had another decision to make roughly two years later, after a 4-8 finish in 2021 that saw Lake fired and DeBoer hired to replace him. After discussions and film sessions with DeBoer and Grubb, Odunze and McMillan each chose to stay … and reaffirmed that commitment again, after Adams departed, another crossroads moment that could have sent them searching for a new home.
The next time they chose UW — the final time, likely — was for a different reason: both players put up more than 1,000 receiving yards last season, starring as the kind of offensive pillars UW coaches had envisioned. Believing he had more in him, McMillan told DeBoer during the season that he would return for another year. Odunze needed more time, but ultimately came to the same conclusion. He spent the offseason getting bigger, intent on staying healthy, winning 50-50 balls and doing more after the catch with his now 4.37-second speed.
Plus, who could say no to another year in this offense?
“More than anything else, I think Jalen was just enjoying what he experienced last year,” Shephard said. “He’d been through some tough times prior to us arriving here, and you know what, for the first time, he really got to just enjoy football. At the end of the day, you don’t know what that next stage is going to look like. Nobody knows, without a shadow of a doubt, because if you get drafted to a team that has three real receivers on there, you might be watching for a little bit.”
Polk, a transfer who spent the 2020 season at Texas Tech, is talented enough to be a No. 1 wideout on some teams. His first point of contact on Lake’s staff, he said, was running backs coach Keith Bhonapha, and he likely would have contributed significantly in 2021, if not for a dislocated clavicle sustained on his first catch in a UW uniform.
“A lot of people see the 2021 season as a downfall, but me personally, I see it as a blessing,” he said. “Throughout the injury I went through, and even though the season went the way it was, that was a point in time I was able to grow my faith and learn through everything we were going through as a team.”
He, too, reevaluated his future after the coaching change, and joined Odunze and McMillan in meeting with Shephard when he came for his interview.
“It was a cool process to have those meetings with Coach DeBoer and the offensive staff,” Polk said, “knowing what they brought to the table for this team, and the plans they had.”
Bernard later rejoined after one season at Michigan State, and has fit seamlessly into the receiver rotation. Another 2022 recruit, Denzel Boston, is positioned next in line. And then there’s Westover and Devin Culp, a pair of sixth-year seniors who have proven they can burn defenses if not accounted for.
Westover figures his best asset — his fastball — is that coaches could assess his career and conclude: “You never had to worry about Jack. You felt comfortable putting him anywhere on the field.”
Through three games, he’s been targeted 10 times, per Pro Football Focus. He has 10 receptions.
The running backs
The Huskies were crushed when Davis, a fifth-year junior, suffered a season-ending injury during the final scrimmage of camp. Even as coaches supplemented the position via the transfer portal, adding five new backs during the last two offseasons, Davis persevered and had played his way into a lead-back role.
Without him, those transfers became even more important. Dillon Johnson, a fourth-year player from Mississippi State, started against Michigan State and ripped off 71 yards on eight carries. Will Nixon, a transfer last season from Nebraska, is averaging 6.3 yards per rush. Tybo Rogers, a true freshman — the first 2023 recruit to commit to DeBoer, in fact — made his college debut in East Lansing and led the Huskies with 74 yards on 15 carries.
“You see what we saw in Tybo from the beginning,” DeBoer said.
After some knee troubles between last season and this spring, Johnson still is striving toward full health; running backs coach Lee Marks figures he’s “very close to being 100 percent.” The key may well be Rogers, who, in his debut, looked to have the quickness and decisiveness needed to contribute right away. The freshman was suspended for much of preseason camp, but recently, DeBoer said, “he’s holding himself accountable on another level.”
After losing senior Wayne Taulapapa, the team’s leading rusher, the Huskies added Johnson and Arizona State transfer Daniyel Ngata. His priority in the portal, Marks said, was “definitely physicality, the willingness to block, and obviously the ability to catch the football.”
“Definitely a guy who is not going to just always run around everything. He’s going to have to be able to put his foot in the ground and be able to be (a) violent finisher.”
The offensive line
Scott Huff is in his seventh season coaching Washington’s O-line, which means he recruited every one of UW’s current linemen; he remarked that he’s known Mele, a sixth-year senior, “longer than I’ve known my daughter.”
Huff’s approach, generally, is to gather tackle prospects — the most difficult O-linemen to find — and move them inside on an as-needed basis. Take the 2019 recruiting class, for example. The Huskies signed four players: junior-college transfer Corey Luciano, and four-star prospects Troy Fautanu, Nate Kalepo and Julius Buelow. Luciano projected as a center, and the other three as tackles.
Luciano bounced around positions — including tight end for one year — before settling as the team’s starting center last season. Fautanu played some guard before cementing at left tackle. Kalepo and Buelow wound up on the interior after practicing some at tackle, too. With Mele sidelined, all three started against the Spartans, with redshirt freshman Parker Brailsford at center and Roger Rosengarten, a 2020 signee, at right tackle.
All except Brailsford were four-star recruits. Rosengarten’s signature probably required the most work. Petagna remembers receiving intel that Rosengarten, out of Valor Christian in Highlands Ranch, Colo., was all but locked up for Oregon after his visit to Eugene. “No way,” Petagna thought. “I knew we had the inside track on him. I knew Huff was doing a great job with the parents. That was the biggest thing.”
It was close, Rosengarten said, but his relationship with Huff put the Huskies over the top.
“You get that feeling when you go to bed at night and wake up in the morning, you kind of know you made the right decision,” Rosengarten said. “It was close. But through thick and thin, through the highs and lows of this program, I’m so glad of the decision I made.”
UW’s thoughtful approach to offering scholarships also resonated: “There was a stat of how many offers went to certain recruits in each class, and UW was one of the very lowest — them and, like, Stanford. That meant a lot to me. If they offer one out of every five kids, and another program offers four out of every five kids, I feel more valued with UW.”
Huff, Petagna said, was one of the UW assistants most willing to work in partnership with the personnel department to identify the prospects most worth pursuing. He’s also a natural on the recruiting trail.
“He’s real. There’s no secret sauce to him, other than him just being himself. He’s 110 percent genuine,” Petagna said. “He’s got this gravitational pull. You want to be around him, and you know his intentions are pure — and he’s still going to coach you up, and not sugarcoat anything.
“Ninety-eight percent of these coaches do not enjoy recruiting. I think Scott does, and did. He’s a social being. It’s muscle reflex to him. It’s not a job.”
As Rosengarten put it: “He wants to have you over at the house, be around his kids. It’s the whole nine yards with him — everything from the fundamentals down to the assignments. … If I have improper hand placement or a wrong step on a get-off or something, he’s going to let me know about it, no matter how much success any guy has around here.”
Another Huff staple: cross-training. Brailsford began the season at guard and has moved to center to replace Mele, and has practiced extensively at both positions — and some at left tackle during the spring. Geirean Hatchett, another four-star recruit from the 2020 class, is a versatile backup who has practiced at guard, tackle and center. Buelow and Kalepo each could play tackle if needed. Landen Hatchett, a true freshman, projects as a center but has already played guard, too.
“These are the reasons you do those things,” Huff said. “Credit to all the guys for being flexible and moving around. Has it been perfect? No, it hasn’t been perfect. There’s a lot of things we can still get better at. Just proud of the guys and the way they’re handling this stuff on a day to day basis.”
The Huskies allowed seven sacks last season, tied for second-fewest in all of FBS, and are positioned to at least chase a similar number this year; Penix was sacked on UW’s first possession of the season, against Boise State, but hasn’t been sacked since.
Through three games, Grubb says he would grade Washington’s offense at a 7 out of 10.
Citing poor third-down statistics at Michigan State, he remarked: “We made some of the really, really tough plays look easy, and we made the easy plays look tough.” He also didn’t like that the Huskies settled for field goals on two trips inside the red zone.
Shephard, too, establishes a high standard for UW’s talented receivers.
“We’ve got to do a better job of just staying on our feet,” he said. “That’s certainly a piece of the game we could have done a better job at — giving ourselves more opportunities to get yards after the catch by staying on our feet, make moves on guys.”
California is in town this weekend, with a defense likely more talented than any UW faced during the first three weeks. There is some question, too, about the running game, and how effective it can be against tougher competition when the Huskies need to grind out a yard or two to move the sticks or get in the end zone.
So the mantra is largely unchanged from the offseason, when UW players spoke about their belief in an even higher offensive ceiling than what they established in 2022.
They’re really good. They expect to be better. Grubb praises Penix for the way he handles any attention he might receive, or the growing Heisman talk surrounding him.
It’s special, he acknowledges. It just doesn’t really matter right now.
“I always tell him: we can think about it after the season,” Grubb said. “We’ll wait until then, and then, it’ll be pretty cool.”
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.