Jimmy Lake better be right.
On Dec. 7 — two days after UW’s 31-26 home loss to Stanford — the Huskies coach was asked to assess freshman wide receivers Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan. Because starting wideouts Terrell Bynum (injury) and Puka Nacua (COVID-19) were forced to miss the Stanford game, the four-star freshmen were tasked with replacing that production.
And, by and large, they didn’t disappoint.
Though the Huskies ultimately fell for the first time under Lake, Odunze (five catches, 69 yards) and McMillan (one catch, 16 yards) each contributed to the cause. They looked like the future of UW’s wide receiver room.
Two days later, Lake made his opinion apparent.
“I was very excited — extremely excited — about those two young receivers,” Lake said, days before the Oregon game was canceled due to COVID concerns. “We saw that in training camp and we saw that during those weeks of practice. Then maybe sometime in these early games it didn’t show up as much, didn’t have the opportunities. But those guys were definitely thrust into some positions where they had to make some plays. Those guys made some plays.
“I know they’re gaining confidence and I know I’m looking forward to them raising their game to another level. Those are two exciting young players that, as long as they continue to work, can be big-time guys for us.”
They need to be.
Especially because, when it comes to veteran wide receivers, the Washington Huskies are suddenly without a safety net. Three of their most experienced wideouts — Nacua (BYU), Ty Jones (Fresno State) and Jordan Chin (Sacramento State) — each transferred this offseason, and seldom-used juniors Marquis Spiker and Austin Osborne could conceivably do the same. Together, Nacua, Jones and Chin accounted for 65 catches, 1,137 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in 72 career games.
Same as against Stanford, that production is not impossible to replace.
But Lake and Co. will have to hope that talent trumps experience in the wide receiver room.
If — for the sake of argument — we remove Osborne and Spiker from consideration, the Huskies are left with seven scholarship wide receivers this spring: senior Terrell Bynum, sophomores Ja’Lynn Polk and Taj Davis, redshirt freshmen Odunze, McMillan and Sawyer Racanelli, and incoming freshman Jabez Tinae. Of that group, Bynum — the lone upperclassman — is the only player who has scored a touchdown in his UW career.
But, on the other hand, wide receivers coach Junior Adams has recruited some tantalizing talent. Odunze, McMillan and Tinae are all former four-star recruits, and Racanelli — who eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first three seasons at Hockinson High School in Brush Prairie — might have been if not for an untimely torn ACL. Plus, Polk — who announced a transfer to UW last month — caught 28 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns in his true freshman season at Texas Tech in 2020, registering at least one reception in all 10 games.
Even without Nacua, Jones and Chin (and possibly Spiker and Osborne, too), there’s plenty to be excited about for UW’s starting quarterback — be it redshirt sophomore Dylan Morris, graduate student Patrick O’Brien or five-star freshman Sam Huard.
But a lot of coaching, and a little luck, will both be required. In his third season in Seattle, Adams will have to do his best coaching job — efficiently developing a room filled with sophomores and redshirt freshmen, while eliminating the inconsistency we saw at times last season. A depth-challenged group will have to avoid untimely injuries as well.
And it’ll be up to second-year offensive coordinator John Donovan to scheme his young receivers into advantageous situations, something that was notoriously difficult during the Chris Petersen era. Last spring, Lake insisted “it’s going to be more easy for a younger player to come in and play right away, the way this system is laid out.”
Once again, he better be right.
In four games last fall, with a redshirt freshman quarterback, UW ranked third in the Pac-12 in yards per pass attempt (8.2), fifth in passing offense (226.5 yards per game), fifth in passing plays per game of 30 yards or more (1.5) and seventh in completion percentage (61.3%). The Huskies finished second in the conference in third-down conversions (48.15%), but 11th in red-zone touchdown rate (55.56%).
It helps, of course, that all of UW’s scholarship offensive linemen, running backs and tight ends return — notably senior tight end and leading pass-catcher Cade Otton, who produced 14.3 yards per reception and three touchdowns in 2020.
But, as for the UW wide receivers, Husky fans better hope the future has arrived.