The loudest statement Jimmy Lake made last season was not something he said.
On Nov. 16, 2020 — two days after UW ran 51 times, as opposed to 24 passes, in a season-opening 27-21 win over Oregon State — the Huskies’ first-year head coach intentionally wore a hat featuring four bolded words to his weekly news conference:
RUN THE DAMN BALL
That philosophy, of course, has its merits — particularly on a rainy November night in a redshirt freshman quarterback’s first career start. And UW did so with tremendous success — bombarding the hapless Beavers for 267 rushing yards, 5.2 yards per carry and three rushing scores.
But the hat was not a hit in the wide receivers room.
“I’m not going to lie, we were a little frustrated with that,” UW senior wide receiver Terrell Bynum said last week. “We were like, ‘Come on, we can make some plays too.’ But I think running the ball will set us up for a lot of shots down field.”
It will not set up Puka Nacua, Ty Jones, Marquis Spiker, Austin Osborne and Jordan Chin … at least, at Washington. All five transferred out of the program this offseason, leaving UW with just six scholarship wide receivers on campus this spring. Bynum said those departures were “actually a little devastating, because I was super close with those guys outside of football. We still stay in contact, but (the situation) is not what I thought it was going to be.”
“First of all, those that have left, I wish them the best of luck,” added third-year UW wide receivers coach Junior Adams. “I liked every one of those guys and I had a really good relationship with those guys. But it’s just like life: people come and go.
“We’re excited about the guys we have in that room. It’s a really young group with some good talent in there, and I’m really intrigued. Obviously we’re young and we’re still trying to build some consistency and learn how to practice. But we’re really excited about the guys we have in that room.”
Like Adams said, intriguing options abound. Bynum has established himself as a steady senior receiver, and redshirt freshmen Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Sawyer Racanelli each could make significant strides in their second seasons in Seattle. Taj Davis — who opted out of the 2020 season — had easily his most dynamic practice Friday, and fellow sophomore Ja’Lynn Polk arrives after tallying 28 catches and two touchdowns as a true freshman at Texas Tech last fall.
“Our wide receivers are starting to look like what we want those guys to look like,” Lake said Wednesday. “That room is playing with confidence. They’re out there making plays. They’re blocking in the run game. They’re going against a secondary that’s really, really talented, and they’re also going against a style of defense that does not give up a lot of big plays.
“So for those guys to go out there and make the plays they’ve been making is extraordinary, and you can see the confidence, and you can see the swag, the toughness. That’s what we want that position group to be like, and it’s only going to get better when we add a couple more guys here coming up.”
Still, it’s fair to wonder what Washington’s wide receiver usage will actually look like. In the debut voyage of John Donovan’s pro-style system, the Huskies ranked 10th in the Pac-12 and 99th nationally with 27.8 pass attempts per game. Their leader in every significant receiving category was tight end Cade Otton, and UW’s top statistical wide receiver — Nacua — traded purple and gold for BYU blue.
Can UW ‘run the damn ball’ while throwing it, too?
According to Bynum, that pro-style system is designed to create explosive plays in the passing game.
“Other offenses like USC are pretty air raid and their (individual) stat lines could look like eight (catches) for 80 yards and maybe a touchdown,” he said. “I think our offense sets us up for a lot of down-the-field throws. We just have to connect. Last year we didn’t connect on all those deep threats. But our (individual) stat lines could look like three catches for 150 (yards) if we do it right. It just all comes down to executing on those shot plays that we take.”
Over the last several seasons, the execution has been iffy. Since 2017, 119 wide receivers nationally have topped 1,000 receiving yards in a season.
Washington, meanwhile, has not had one.
Which only compounds the questions. Even if UW’s system does allow its receivers to excel, is UW capable of developing a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver?
If yes, the 6-3, 200-pound Odunze may be UW’s leading candidate.
“Through the winter conditioning, I think it was (defensive coordinator) Bob Gregory who said something to the staff like, ‘That dude’s an alpha,’” Adams said of Odunze. “Rome really thrived when things got hard through our winter conditioning programs, our OTAs and all that stuff. He’s taken the next step with just growing and trying to be the first in line and trying to set a good example. We’re excited about him. He’s making plays for us. He’s getting better.”
Likewise, Lake called Racanelli — a stout 6-2, 210-pound receiver with reliable hands — his most pleasant surprise this spring, and Bynum, McMillan and Polk have each made their share of impressive plays. But, same as last season, that group struggles at times to consistently catch the ball.
With every scholarship offensive lineman, running back and tight end returning this fall, Washington will undoubtedly continue to run the damn ball. Like it or not, that infamous white hat isn’t going anywhere.
But, like Bynum said, UW’s wide receivers are out to prove they can make some plays, too.