Rome Odunze’s first touchdown was fitting.
It arrived only after adversity hit.
Odunze — a 6-foot-3, 200-pound wide receiver from Las Vegas — has weathered plenty of it at Washington. After arriving in the summer of 2020, his freshman season was cut short due to the continued effects of COVID-19. An injury kept him out of UW’s first three games this fall as well, and the Huskies have stumbled out to a 2-4 start.
For a former four-star recruit who excelled in both football and track and field at Bishop Gorman High; who notched 54 catches for 1,222 yards and 15 touchdowns in his senior season, en route to being named Nevada’s Gatorade Player of the Year; who earned offers from Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, USC and many more; who won a Nevada 4A state title in the 200 meters (21.25) and the 4×100 relay (41.36), while finishing fourth in the 100 meters (10.67) as a junior in 2019; adversity may have been unfamiliar.
But Odunze believes he’s better for it.
He knows you need to clear hurdles to reach the finish line.
“We harp on adversity here a lot,” Odunze said Tuesday. “Life is about adversity, and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I like to live by that. I think that’s all made me stronger.”
Last Saturday, then, was no exception. In the Huskies’ 24-17 homecoming loss to UCLA, Odunze thought he scored his first career touchdown on a 17-yard catch-and-run … only to be marked out of bounds at the 2-yard line. The following quarter, UW quarterback Dylan Morris lofted a deep ball that Odunze also dropped on the edge of the end zone.
Four plays later, he made amends — snagging a rainbow over his shoulder for a redemptive 26-yard score.
“It was thrilling, to say the least,” Odunze said. “It was definitely a lot of fun, touching the (end zone) paint for my first college touchdown. I felt the pressure to make another play, because I had missed one on the opposite sideline (Morris’ deep ball) a few plays before.
“We harp on playing for the next play and making sure you’re ready for the next opportunity. I really wanted that one back. So to get it in the same drive and be able to score and point up to my mom, blow my mom some kisses, that meant the world to me.”
Given Odunze’s obvious potential, there should be plenty more kisses to come.
“He’s really chill outside of football, but you see the intensity and how dynamic he is on the field,” said UW tight end Cade Otton. “I think he just has a really good mentality. You can tell he’s been playing big-time football for a while, and he’s ready to make plays.”
Odunze — who has recorded 10 catches for 134 yards and a touchdown in his first three games this fall — credits wide receivers coach Junior Adams for preparing him to make those plays.
But as Adams often says, “Hard work works.”
And adversity be damned, Odunze’s been working.
“Rome’s very smart, and he’s tough,” Adams said during training camp, on Aug. 16. “Rome dedicated this offseason to just catching a lot of footballs. He was committing to putting in that work when no one else is around. I want to say like two days ago, he had a pretty good day at practice, and then I look out my window around 12:30 and he’s the last one on the field, still catching (on the JUGS machine).
“You know what I mean? He’s dedicated right now, and he’s putting in the work. We lean on the fact that hard work works. We understand the process. We understand that it takes time. So he’s put in the extra time.”
Not that he needed to. In the transfer portal era, Odunze could have coasted to another program offering more immediate production. Given the 2-4 start, he still could this offseason.
But Odunze seems destined to embrace the adversity.
“I’m happy to be a Dawg, for sure,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I love the culture here. I love the people. I love the fans. I’m just excited to put more into it, honestly. I think it’s a challenge to be 2-4 and to have these opportunities come. It’s really a test of who we are as a team and who we are as a culture, who we are as fans, what we’re going to do. Because we’re all in this together.”
Of course, that includes the entire corps of ascending wide receivers — a group that appears to be coming into its own. Statistically, UW’s top three pass-catchers are redshirt freshman Taj Davis (21 catches, 270 yards, 1 TD), junior Terrell Bynum (20 catches, 284 yards, 3 TDs) and second-year freshman Jalen McMillan (19 catches, 270 yards, 2 TDs) — each of whom is eligible to return in 2022.
Add Odunze, who was dealt a late start due to his injury, and the wide receiver room is teeming with talent.
But consistency needs to come next.
“I think you guys can see some of the excitement that we had for those young receivers, and you’re seeing the maturation process of those young receivers,” UW head coach Jimmy Lake said Monday. “They make the big play, and then all of a sudden there’s a couple of plays we could have had. If we make those plays, all of a sudden we have a different result. So that’s kind of what I’m talking about with our whole team.
“But talking about Rome and you talk about Jalen (McMillan), you see the athleticism. You see the speed, the big-play ability. They’re young guys and they’re making plays against quality opponents. And they’ve also left some plays out there that we know we’re going to be able to make. So I think they’re right where they should be, in terms of how young they are. But of course we’re going to keep pushing. We’re going to keep prodding to get them to keep playing at that high level all the time. I think every single week you’re going to see those guys get better and more confident.”
When adversity hit, Odunze hit back.
He’s expecting the Huskies to do the same in their next six games.
“It’s frustrating,” Odunze said of UW’s disappointing start. “Washington has a history of success, and we want to amplify that and portray that in our games and be able to come out and dominate opponents. It’s a hard game, and we definitely have the athletes to do that.
“The 2-4 start is less than ideal. But we know that there’s six games left, and that’s what we’re looking forward to. We just want to play to the best of our ability. And we know if we do that, we’ll come out with some victories in these next six.”