CHRISTIAN CAPLE

As UW Huskies’ Rome Odunze chases his record, Reggie Williams urges: ‘Give him the rock’

Nov 30, 2023, 9:31 AM

UW Huskies Rome Odunze...

UW Huskies WR Rome Odunze reacts after a play against Utah on Nov. 11, 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

SEATTLE — UW Huskies wide receiver Rome Odunze understood the implication of placing the No. 1 on his chest ahead of the 2022 season.

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Warren Moon wore No. 1. So did John Ross III, and Chris Polk, and Byron Murphy. Also, the only receiver currently ahead of Odunze on Washington’s single-season receiving list: Reggie Williams, whose physical dominance from 2001-03 set the standard for UW receiver play in the modern era.

“When you look at the field and you see No. 1, you think he’s a baller,” Odunze told me last year. “That’s what I envision myself as, and that’s what I want to go put on the field. No. 1, especially at UW, has so many legends, my gosh. I just want to be among those guys when I leave here, and make sure I’m stamping my name on Husky football.”

He enters Friday’s Pac-12 championship game against Oregon a mere 128 yards shy of knocking Williams from his own No. 1 perch, where his 1,454 receiving yards in 2002 have towered for two decades, more than 300 yards better than anybody since.

Reggie wouldn’t mind being No. 2 by the end of Friday’s Pac-12 Championship matchup against Oregon.

“Man, of course. I want to see the young boy shine,” Williams said this week. “I don’t know what he has left, or what he’s close to. But I’m always for — hey, give him the rock. I believe in all them boys. Him, (Ja’Lynn) Polk, (Jalen) McMillan, the young boy No. 4 (Germie Bernard). All them boys can go.

“I say feed him. Coach (Ryan) Grubb should do everything in his power to get him the ball in clutch situations. I know they’re going to try to do whatever it takes to win, and if the record comes with that, it comes with it.”

Odunze said he’s met Williams before, and has seen some of his old film, though his career predated this current era of ubiquitous highlight clips; as Williams once said, “it really seems prehistoric that I got a lot of attention without ever making a highlight tape.”

It doesn’t take more than a play or two to understand what made Williams great: at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, he was larger than any defensive back who lined up across from him, and had uncommon speed for his size. The combination made him a five-star recruit as a prep All-American at Lakes High in Lakewood.

“He was just raw, straight athleticism, different type of build,” Odunze said. “Not everybody was born with something like that. I heard I was close (to the record). Hopefully, I can go take that from him, but to be anywhere near that, it’s such an honor, honestly.”

Even Odunze, listed at 6-3 and 215 pounds, doesn’t quite cut the same figure as Williams, who as a national top-five recruit became the best player in the program as a true freshman. But Odunze’s playing style is as similar to Williams as any receiver UW has ever had, and Reggie sees traits that set Rome apart as a unique talent.

“His ability to go up and high-point and catch the ball is something we definitely have in common, but besides that, he’s his own problem, man,” Williams said. “The way he can twist, turn and manipulate himself to catch the ball and adjust to catch the ball is amazing. I just love watching and seeing the kid go.”

Williams, Odunze said, “was a dog. He went up and took some stuff out of the air. He was super athletic with it, too. I think we carry that same mentality of being that big, bad receiver when we come out here.”

It’s that ability to win one-on-one matchups — for 50-50 balls, ostensibly, though his ability tilts those odds in his favor — that has put Odunze over the top as UW’s most consistent offensive threat. Even as Michael Penix Jr.’s numbers have receded some in the back half of the season, Odunze has surged, eclipsing the 100-yard receiving mark in each of the Huskies’ last three games, with two touchdown catches in each.

At Oregon State, he caught the third-and-three pass — a back-shoulder clothesline from Penix, his specialty — that moved the chains on UW’s final possession and iced a 22-20 victory.

In the Apple Cup, Odunze scored two of the Huskies’ three touchdowns, then took the famed fourth-and-one pitch for a 23-yard gain to key UW’s drive for a game-winning field goal.

And in UW’s Oct. 14 victory over Oregon, it was Odunze who caught the game-winning touchdown, another back-shoulder look in one-on-one coverage that Penix didn’t need more than a second to consider.

“All of those are big-time, and he’s proven to be a flat-out playmaker,” said Mario Bailey, the former All-American whose 18 touchdown receptions in 1991 remain a school record. “But to me, to be the best, you need to go be the best on the biggest stage. And to me right now, this Pac-12 championship game is the biggest stage.

“He’s already made an imprint forever and ever. He’s going to go down in history as one of the greatest, if not the greatest. But now is where it’s the money time, so we’re about to see.”

Williams and Bailey are the only UW receivers to earn first-team All-America recognition, though Odunze has a strong chance to join them this season — and he recently became the school’s first Biletnikoff Award finalist since the award’s inception in 1994. With 2,958 career receiving yards so far, he’s second only to Williams (3,598), and his 24 career receiving touchdowns are tied for third with Dante Pettis (behind Bailey’s 30 and Jermaine Kearse’s 29).

“He’s definitely up there on the Mount Rushmore of Washington receivers, for sure,” Williams said. “What he’s done this year and the year before, even in his first year coming in — the way he’s progressed and gotten better, and the way he’s dominated this year.”

It might also be true that no UW receiver has been called upon to make more game-deciding plays with such high stakes. Williams was at his best in rivalry games against Oregon and Washington State, but never played for a team that won more than eight games. Bailey was part of two conference championships and had his 18-touchdown season when the Huskies went 12-0 and split the national title, but that team was so dominant that clutch plays were rarely needed (though Bailey does own perhaps UW’s most iconic on-field moment).

Likewise, Ross put up 17 touchdowns in 2016, but the Huskies won most of their games in blowouts, and he was limited to five catches for 28 yards in UW’s CFP semifinal loss to No. 1 Alabama. And Jerome Pathon, who put up 1,299 yards in 1997, also did not enjoy the privilege of playing for a conference champion.

Neither has Odunze, of course. But he has a chance to change that on Friday, and you can draw a direct line from his presence on the roster to UW’s 12-0 record.

Has UW ever had anyone quite like him?

“He’s a combination of a few guys,” Bailey said. “Reggie is an animal. He’s something different. And you have like a Jerome Pathon, but (Rome) is somewhere in between. … I don’t have anybody I can actually compare him to, because he’s great.”

Like Williams, Odunze also is part of a prolific QB-receiver connection. Cody Pickett was UW’s starting quarterback for Williams’ entire career; Odunze caught passes from Dylan Morris in 2020 and 2021, but has put up 2,471 of his career yards and 20 of his touchdowns the past two seasons with Penix at the helm.

That matters, too.

“As a receiver, you’ve got to run 1,000 routes in the hopes that you might get the ball,” Williams said. “It’s just a great thing, really. When you’re friends on and off the field and you have chemistry on the field, it just allows you to play to a level most people can’t reach.”

Odunze was 3 years old when his family moved from Orem, Utah, to Las Vegas, where his parents still live. He’s trying to arrange tickets for maybe 60 family members for Friday’s game at Allegiant Stadium — a venue he hasn’t set foot in, he said, because he wanted his first time to be in the Pac-12 title game.

His individual goals have evolved as the season has progressed. They now read: 80 catches, 1,600 yards, 15 touchdowns, the Heisman Trophy for Penix, the Biletnikoff for himself.

“They’re all still in play,” he said.

Odunze’s stat line against Oregon the first time: eight catches, two touchdowns and, funny enough, 128 yards.

A repeat performance would tie Reggie.

Anything less might not be good enough to win, considering UW is a 9.5-point underdog.

“If Rome continues on this pace and we win a national championship,” Bailey said, “then he’s going to go down as the greatest receiver.”

Odunze’s fellow “uno,” as he calls it, will be watching.

“To get a chance to run it back and to beat them on a national stage and for the Pac-12 title in a winner-take-all type game is awesome,” Williams said. “I can’t wait to watch. I know I’m going to be going crazy watching it. It’s going to be exciting.”

This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the 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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As UW Huskies’ Rome Odunze chases his record, Reggie Williams urges: ‘Give him the rock’