No. 5 UW Huskies’ WRs part of why QB Penix is in Heisman race

Oct 25, 2023, 3:11 PM

UW Huskies Rome Odunze Ja'Lynn Polk...

Ja'Lynn Polk and Rome Odunze of the UW Huskies celebrate during a 2022 game against Colorado. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

SEATTLE (AP) — Before the season even began, Rome Odunze believed the way the UW Huskies’ wide receivers complemented each other would lead to big things.

Turns out that for most of the first seven games for the fifth-ranked Huskies, Odunze was right.

AP Top 25: See where UW Huskies sit after scare vs ASU

“It’s crazy because each position in our offense requires certain things and I feel like we have the perfect fit in situations where they do a great job of putting people where they’ll have success,” Odunze said back in August.

Minus some of the issues caused by Arizona State last week, Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has posted video game-like numbers that have landed him in squarely in the Heisman Trophy race.

Throwing to one of the deepest sets of wide receivers in the country has clearly made Penix’s job easier.

The Pac-12 is blessed with quality pass catchers this season. Oregon’s Troy Franklin has eight touchdown catches and is averaging 109.9 yards per game. Jacob Cowing at Arizona also has eight TD catches. Washington State’s Lincoln Victor had 16 catches last week against Oregon, and Xavier Weaver and Jimmy Horn Jr. have become the top targets for Shedeur Sanders at Colorado.

But no program can match the depth of the Huskies’ wide receiver group.

“Like I always say, I’ve got the best receiving corps in the country,” Penix said. “If anybody else says anything different, they’ve got to turn on the tape because those guys show each and every day.”

It hasn’t just been Odunze or Ja’Lynn Polk or Jalen McMillan carrying the load for Washington. It’s been all of them at various times through Washington’s seven-game unbeaten run to start the season.

At least one of those three has topped 100 yards receiving in six of the seven games so far. In five of those six, two of them reached the century mark. And that comes with McMillan having missed most of the past 4 ½ games with a leg injury. Had McMillan not been injured in the first half of Washington’s big win at Michigan State, the Huskies likely would have seen all three hit the 100-yard mark in that victory.

The one game where none of those three approached 100 yards — Washington’s 31-24 win at Arizona — backup Germie Bernard had eight catches for 98 yards in the victory. Even last week against Arizona State, when the UW Huskies’ offense ran into problems and failed to score a touchdown, Polk still had nine catches for 102 yards.

“I think our guys have just seen this over and over where an opportunity arises and just being ready at that particular position, whoever it is, to come in and contribute and make a big play,” offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said.

Odunze was on every preseason and midseason All-America team and seems likely to be a first-round pick when the NFL comes calling next spring. Aside from his 6-foot-3 frame that has gotten stronger, Odunze also tends to make his catches go for significant gains. Of Odunze’s 45 receptions, 37 have gone for 10 yards or more. Throw in a 14-yard TD run and Odunze has the most scrimmage plays of 10 or more yards in the country.

Not far behind is Polk, who has seen his profile grow exponentially this season. Polk had 41 catches and six touchdowns in 13 games last season. He has 42 catches and five touchdown catches in seven games this season. Thirteen of those catches have gone for 20 or more yards, tied for fifth nationally.

To an extent, McMillan has become the forgotten player of the three after injuring his leg in the first half against Michigan State. McMillan returned for one series of the win over Oregon before going back to the sideline, although the expectation is he’ll return this week against Stanford or next week at USC.

Before getting hurt, McMillan had 20 receptions in 3½ games after catching 79 passes a season ago.

What’s proved important for Washington in the wake of McMillan’s injury have been the contributions from further down the roster. Bernard had the big game against Arizona. Giles Jackson’s first catch of the season was Washington’s opening touchdown against Oregon after he missed the first five games with an injury. Tight end Jack Westover quietly has four TDs and grabbed an important 2-point conversion in the win over Oregon.

“There’s a lot of talent in that room,” coach Kalen DeBoer said.

More on the UW Huskies

Caple’s Takeaways: No. 5 Huskies’ close call vs last-place ASU
Powell’s late pick-6 helps No. 5 UW Huskies survive ASU 15-7
Who’s the right NFL comp for star Michael Penix Jr.?
DeBoer: How much Penix has improved since 2019
Huard: Built for this – Penix could reach heights no UW Huskies QB has

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