CHRISTIAN CAPLE

Caple: UW Huskies receiver Ja’Lynn Polk is no third wheel

Sep 29, 2023, 12:39 AM

UW Huskies NFL Draft Ja'Lynn Polk...

Ja'Lynn Polk of the UW Huskies celebrates a catch against Cal on Sept. 23, 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

SEATTLE — It was “literally one of the best experiences of my college career so far,” a feeling and a moment that UW Huskies wide receiver Ja’Lynn Polk figures he will cherish for the rest of his life.

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Which play inspired such joy for Washington’s fourth-year sophomore?

His leaping, fingertip touchdown catch over a California defender on the Huskies’ first possession? Nah.

His 24-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter? Nope.

What most thrilled Polk on Saturday night at Husky Stadium — a game in which he caught eight passes for 127 yards — was instead that electrifying, 83-yard punt return for a touchdown … by Rome Odunze.

Polk handled his blocking assignment and then sprinted to run alongside Odunze, celebrating before he had crossed the goal line.

“I always dreamed of running down there and blocking and seeing the crowd,” Polk said, marveling at the combination of crescendoing crowd noise, the packed student section and the new LED light effects.

“Being able to run down there and be there beside him … that was one for the books, for sure.”

It’s true: Polk, the former Texas Tech transfer and product of Lufkin, Texas, has a selfless vibe about him. He politely declined interview requests throughout preseason camp, preferring to show something on the field before speaking with reporters, and even now — as the Pac-12’s third-leading receiver, with 427 yards and four touchdowns through four games — does not consider himself starved for attention relative to more publicized teammates Odunze and Jalen McMillan.

“Those guys deserve everything they’re getting,” Polk said after Tuesday’s practice. “I feel like me personally, we fit in all together. We don’t focus on the little things outside of what’s going on in the room. We just focus on the main thing, and that’s getting better each and every day, continuing to grow each other and push forward to having a great season.”

The work is all he knows. Maybe it’s because he watched his mother, Jennifer, work three jobs, sometimes returning home from one shift just long enough to nap before heading back out. Or because he grew up attending his uncle’s high-school workouts when he was in elementary and middle school. At Lufkin High, Christmas vacation found Polk calling coaches, asking anybody with a set of keys to let him into the school to lift weights. He didn’t miss a day in the summers, Lufkin coach Todd Quick said. Polk started running the 400 meters as a junior, because Quick, who also coaches track, told him it could help him on the football field.

“Everything was geared toward making him better,” Quick said. “He never questioned, he never doubted.”

Before moving to Lufkin, Polk lived with his family in Baytown, outside Houston. He watched Andre Johnson star for the Texans and dreamed of a similar future. His first sport was basketball, but Polk fell in love with football after starting little league in the sixth grade.

When he arrived at Lufkin in the spring of his freshman year, Quick said, “it didn’t take long to realize that he was a little bit different than the rest of them. It was the things that he did when nobody was looking,” like sneaking into the indoor facility at night and organizing throwing sessions.

“I feel like even when he’s sleeping,” UW receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard said this week, “he’s sleeping with one eye open, because he’s putting in work, in some way, shape or form.”

Last year, Shephard said, Polk gathered younger teammates for 5 a.m. film sessions at the facility. And if NFL scouts are noticing him now, it might be as much for what they see at practice.

“Obviously, the stuff on film is making their eyes go that direction a little bit more,” Shephard said, “but even in practice, they’re noticing: ‘Man, he takes a boatload of reps, coach.’

“I’m having to field a few more phone calls because of him.”

Even as Odunze and McMillan eclipsed the 1,000–yard mark last season, Polk caught 41 passes for 694 yards and six touchdowns. He led the team with eight contested catches, per Pro Football Focus. He fought through contact and absorbed big hits. Even the play that wiped out much of his 2021 season — a tackle that dislocated his clavicle, in the opener against Montana — resulted in a catch.

Polk calls that year a “blessing” in spite of the time he missed, and a growth opportunity he learned to appreciate. He’s made technical strides, too. Shephard said there were times earlier in his career when Polk “didn’t perform like a natural receiver.” He needed to learn how to get in and out of breaks more efficiently, and how to position himself to gain leverage against defenders — “understanding how to push the defenders to the location we want them to be in, so he can take the route that he wants,” as Shephard puts it.

The coach describes Polk’s style as “downhill, hard, on the football, super ball-dominant guy.” Early on, he noticed Polk’s proficiency at running curl routes. “It was in how he came back to the football and always attacked the football,” Shephard said. “Now, we just had to transition that into the rest of his game, on every other route he’s running.”

Odunze and McMillan, a pair of touted 2020 signees, have long been linked together, dating to when Chris Petersen’s coaching staff pitched them on playing with one another. Their 1,000-yard turn last season only affirmed the notion of those two as a duo. Polk, though, a former three-star prospect, effectively joined the class when he transferred ahead of the 2021 season, and his play over the past 17 games suggests UW’s top receivers should be considered as a trio.

Dating to the start of last season — the beginning of the Kalen DeBoer era — Polk has put up 1,121 yards and 10 touchdowns. While it once might have been assumed Polk would return in 2024 as UW’s No. 1 target with Odunze and McMillan off to the NFL, it’s worth wondering now if Polk might have a chance to go with them.

“It’s about time,” tailback Dillon Johnson said of growing appreciation for Polk’s contributions. “Everybody says J.P. is kind of, like, the underdog, I guess. But he’s a different breed. Y’all see the catches. It’s all hands. It’s perfect. He catches everything. I don’t think he has a drop this season.”

Johnson’s recollection is accurate: Polk has caught 21 of 27 targets this year, per Pro Football Focus, and has yet to drop a pass, though his own assessment is harsher. There was one throw, against Boise State, about which Polk says: “It wasn’t necessarily a drop, but I should have caught it. No matter how high, how low, how wide, I always feel like I’ve got to catch those balls from Mike (Penix), because he deserves it.”

He wants it all, but not just when Penix looks in his direction. Blocking is not a chore.

“He wants to tear everybody across from him apart,” Odunze said. “That’s literally his mindset. He has that Dawg mentality. People say that a lot, (but) I don’t use that lightly. He’s a Dawg. He kind of brings that excitement, that aggressiveness, that violence to the game that allows him to make so many different plays.”

In a sport that demands obsessive physical preparation, how does Polk manage to stand out?

“He just goes over the top with all the things that people usually do,” Odunze said. “Like catching JUGS. Whether I’m catching the ball — OK, he’s going to go catch 200. Or I’m working on a route — OK, he’s going to work on a route and then some.”

Polk works out with his local trainer when he goes home, Shephard said, and also has trained in Florida, seeking a “different flavor” whenever he leaves campus. He returns to Lufkin regularly, and hosted his first football camp there this summer.

Over Christmas break, Polk stopped by to work out with the school’s receivers.

It seems they’re learning good habits.

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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