HOUSTON — There’s no big secret to the Washington Huskies success – the 14-0 run is a culmination of hard work, diligent coaching, gnawing hunger and devoted preparation.
And as the season climaxes in a Championship clash with top-ranked Michigan Monday night, the Huskies No. 1 nationally ranked receiving corps will be looking to graduate their game against the nation’s second-best pass defense led by players like Will Johnson and Mike Sainristil.
You know the numbers the Husky trio of Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk have put up. You’ve seen the catches they’ve pulled in. And if you are a team like Texas or Oregon, you’ve felt the wrath of the deep pass dialed up by Offensive Coordinator Ryan Grubb and executed by star quarterback Michael Penix Jr.
But what you probably don’t know is that these moments were made possible in part thanks to some extracurricular activity known as Wide Receiver School.
“It really started freshman year, I would come out to practice and plays would be fresh to me and I wouldn’t know how to run a route or anything, so I started coming in early with Rome and Ja’Lynn Polk and a few guys,” said senior Jalen McMillan. “We came in there at six in the morning and we would go through the whole script of the practice and we would know every route we were going to run. That way when practice came, we didn’t have any nervousness on plays, we just went out there and practiced our routes because we knew the play…I like the idea, just being able to go to school in the morning and learn real quick about receiver tactics and what to do and what not to do.”
Wide Receiver School was the brainchild of former Washington Wide Receivers coach Junior Adams, who is now the Co-Offensive Coordinator/Wide Receivers coach at Oregon. Adams recruited both McMillan and Odunze and began helping them develop their game right away.
“Rome and Jalen both were nursing injuries, so it started out as a way to keep those guys involved and a way to give them specific individual attention since they were out of practice,” explained Adams. “Polk was involved as well even though he was healthy. Wide Receiver School lasted the entire season. It got to the point where they would beat me to the room. As a result, it taught them all a routine that works for them, how they all learn individually and gave them the connection you see today.”
As part of the prerequisites, the wideouts were challenged to each catch 10,000 balls on jug machines/tennis ball machines over the summer. Then class was in session, led by a teacher who genuinely cared about making his players better receivers at this level and the next.
“Shout out Coach Adams – that’s my guy,” said Odunze with a smile. “He did a lot for us, teaching us technique during some of the pivotal years, learning how to play college wide receiver and how to become a better wide receiver – a lot of it was just learning the offense and learning defense and why you do certain things.”
Because being a better wide receiver starts with a lesson in preparation.
“When you chalk it up, there’s only so many different things you can do as an offense and so many different concepts and you can start to generalize some of the things that are going on in any given play,” explained Odunze. “He was teaching us those things and giving us the knowledge to be able to go forward and play like a pro and to prepare like a pro, which is something he would always say. That was wide receiver school, waking up real early and going over those things.”
Odunze’s progression is proof of the program – from his four Covid games, to the 2021 Apple Cup catch to last season’s 1,145 yards and this year’s Biletnikoff finalist performance including nine 100-yard games and his national-best contested catches – 20 on 27 contested targets, per PFF.
But Wide Receiver School was also about doing things differently, and not just the 6 a.m. school-before-school part. It became about trying different methods for success, no matter how unique they were.
“Another thing that allowed me to work on my craft was the yellow net – it allowed me to focus in with my eyes and my hands and kind of connecting the two,” shared Odunze. “I think all those little things that you do trying to become a better receiver help you and I would advise young receivers just to do something a little weird or a little different that you feel helps you and grow in that way and put in the work. And all those little things that we did I feel like has helped me grow and become the receiver I am today.”
McMillan’s career has been equally illustrious, littered with awards and record-setting performances. And just like Odunze, he took on some unique extra credit.
“Junior was telling me a story one day about how when he was coaching Cooper Kupp, he would always come into the receiver room right after practice and it would help him critique his game, when it’s fresh in your brain right afterward,” said McMillan. “So I did it one day and the next practice I had a great practice and ever since then I love being able to go after practice and just see what I did wrong right away just so I can fix it.”
McMillan started recruiting other receivers to his insta-film method, including junior Germie Bernard, who agreed it has helped his game.
“We go straight in, watch film, he (McMillan) gives me tips, I give him tips,” disclosed Bernard. “Not everybody does it, but the great ones do – the ones that want to be great do.”
Great is what the receiving corps at Washington has always been striving for, what their former coach always wanted for them. And he will be watching and cheering them on as they walk across the big stage Monday night.
“It’s really cool to see the growth individually and collectively in their quest for a national championship,” confessed Adams. “They stuck to the routine and believed in the process from the beginning. ‘Process driven over results driven.’ Love them like family — it’s for life.”