Regardless of scheme or delivery service, offenses have long thrived by adhering to some obvious advice:
Get the football to your best football players.
If he’s a running back, hand it to him. If he’s a wide receiver, pass it to him.
It’s really pretty simple.
Or at least, it should be.
In a 27-24 loss to Oregon State on Oct. 2, Jalen McMillan — one of Washington’s best football players — was targeted a total of three times, turning in two catches for 18 yards.
Taj Davis — whom UW head coach Jimmy Lake called “one of our top guys” — converted two targets into one catch for five yards.
Rome Odunze — one of Washington’s best football players — caught three passes (for 20 yards) on four targets, five days after Lake said he was “going to have even more opportunities to go make some big splash plays.”
Granted, defenses game plan to minimize an opponent’s playmakers.
But how can Washington (2-3) more consistently follow the aforementioned advice?
“It still comes back to, we have to find a running game. And then off that running game, we have to find a passing game where we can protect Dylan (Morris) and make sure we get the ball out on time,” Lake said Monday, five days before UW hosts UCLA in its homecoming game. “After game two, we’ve made some tweaks; we made some strides. We’re still nowhere where we need to be.
“This bye week has been nice to really rehash through it all again and be able to go: ‘OK, who are our best players? How are we going to get the ball in these guys’ hands, whether we’re throwing it or running it? And how we can protect our quarterback to make sure he can make plays, but also limit turnovers?’ It’s a continued work in progress, but I think we’re making strides since game two.”
The offense’s most noticeable strides have come at the wide receiver position — which has returned starters Terrell Bynum, McMillan and Odunze in recent weeks, after all three missed the season-opening loss to Montana. In his first media availability since arriving in Seattle before the 2020 season, McMillan acknowledged Tuesday that he was “shocked” and “pretty pissed off” when all three wideouts sustained simultaneous injuries.
But that trio managed to move forward away from the field.
“One of the things I really emphasized with those guys that were out was, how are we going to get better while we’re hurt?” UW wide receivers coach Junior Adams said. “What those guys did is they took advantage of it. They came in early. They prepared like they were still playing. So when they got back, we pressed go and there wasn’t a drop-off.”
Quite the contrary. In UW’s 52-3 win Sept. 18 over Arkansas State, McMillan exploded for 10 catches, 175 receiving yards and the first touchdown of his college career.
It was the culmination of a personal evolution for the former four-star recruit from Fresno, California.
“I think he’s matured. He’s grown as a person. To me, that was the first step for him,” Adams said. “He’s one of the guys that when he was out, literally, he would be here at 6:30 in the morning and we wouldn’t have meetings until I think 9 a.m. or 8:30. He would be here at 6:30 and be one of the first guys in the building. He got the installs before anybody else did, and then we’d watch some wide receiver fundamentals.
“He just learned how to work consistently, on a day-to-day basis. We always talk about being a PRO. That’s prepared, ready and organized. That’s the step he’s taken. Is he there yet? No, but he’s growing and he’s trending in the right direction.”
Added McMillan, who has contributed 15 catches for 221 yards and two touchdowns in his last three games: “When I got here it was kind of just a wake-up call for me, where I had to be more dialed on the plays and be a pro. Basically what Junior did is he got me ready for the next level.”
Can the same be said of a scheme that has not provided abundant opportunities for UW’s rising wide receivers? Maybe not, but the fact remains: Sean McGrew needs touches. Cade Otton (who is expected to play Saturday after spending the last two games in UW’s COVID protocol) needs touches. Kamari Pleasant needs touches. Bynum, Davis, McMillan and Odunze all need touches, too.
UW has more offensive playmakers available than at any point this season.
But there are only so many plays to satisfy the masses.
“Just being a wide receiver, we all want the football. But there’s only one football on the field,” Adams said. “We’re going to lean on our culture, and that’s going to be team, unit, me (in that order). These guys buy in. They understand their jobs. They understand, ‘Not only do I need to run the best route and make the play when the ball’s thrown my way,’ but also they buy into blocking in the run game and creating explosive runs.”
When asked if UW’s offense puts its wide receivers in positions to succeed, McMillan added: “One hundred percent. One hundred percent. JD (offensive coordinator John Donovan) is a great coach and he puts us in the greatest positions.”
The proof should be apparent Saturday inside Husky Stadium, against a UCLA defense that ranks first in the Pac-12 in rushing defense (92.33 yards per game) and opponent yards per carry (3.08) but last in passing defense (307.8 passing yards allowed per game).
The goal, as always, is to get the football to your best football players.
And when it comes to those ascending wide receivers, chances are, they’ll be open.