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University of Washington Huskies Football

Once dogged by drops and doubt, former Gonzaga Prep star Devin Culp keeps seizing opportunities at UW

Washington’s Devin Culp celebrates as the No. 8 Oregon Ducks take on the No. 7 Washington Huskies in a Pac-12 game Oct. 14 at Husky Stadium in Seattle.  (Tribune News Service)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Devin Culp can pinpoint the moment he moved past doubt.

On Sept. 18, 2021, Culp – a 6-foot-4, 237-pound tight end – dropped a would-be 39-yard touchdown in Washington’s 52-3 win over Arkansas State. To that point, the Gonzaga Prep product had totaled three catches for 27 yards (and zero touchdowns) in three-plus seasons and 17 career games, reduced to the role of understudy.

The following Friday – a day prior to UW’s Pac-12 opener against California – tight ends coach Derham Cato informed Culp he’d been removed from all of the Huskies’ pass plays as a punitive measure.

That’s when his forecast flipped.

“I just remember being very down, like, ‘Maybe this isn’t for me. Maybe I’m not meant to play at this level. Maybe I’m just meant to get my degree and set up my future,’ ” Culp said. “But then I got a call (from Cato) that afternoon like, ‘Hey, I need you to come back and meet with me. Cade (Otton’s) going to be out. You’re going to be starting tomorrow.’

“This is on Friday before we’re getting ready to go to the hotel. I’m like, ‘What do you mean I’m the starting tight end? For the University of Washington?’ ”

Otton – the first-team All-Pac-12 tight end and future fourth-round pick – was placed in the program’s COVID-19 protocol and forced to miss the game.

Culp produced a team-high five catches for 81 yards in Washington’s 31-24 overtime win.

“That moment is when I realized I’m meant to be here. I can play at this level,” said Culp, who has added 12 catches for 170 yards and two touchdowns in nine games this fall. “It’s just about keeping your nose to the grindstone, and when the opportunities find you, seize every moment – every opportunity you get.”

Granted, in an offense overflowing with NFL wide receivers, opportunities are elusive.

But Culp has carved out a consistent role, contributing 41 catches for 436 yards and three touchdowns in 22 games under Kalen DeBoer.

Fellow UW tight ends Jack Westover (21 catches, 196 receiving yards, five TDs in 2023), Josh Cuevas (four catches, 164 yards, one TD) and Quentin Moore (an effective run blocker) have made their mark as well.

“The better that room is, the more you can manipulate the box,” UW offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said. “I’ve always felt like the tight ends are the controller. You can decide how many people they’re going to attach to the box and the line of scrimmage and really control that situation with open sets and closed sets. When you’ve got guys that can manipulate the run game numbers but also stretch the field, in my mind that’s the ultimate equalizer.”

Culp – once a player consistently dogged by drops – has earned his teammates’ trust. In a 31-24 road win at Arizona on Sept. 30, he skied for an 18-yard reception on third-and-16 that was perhaps the play of the game. In a 42-33 win at Stanford on Oct. 28, he contributed a 29-yard catch and a 24-yard touchdown to extend the Husky lead.

In last weekend’s 52-42 win at USC, he seized another opportunity. Trailing 14-7 with 11:54 left in the second quarter, UW quarterback Michael Penix Jr. took a shotgun snap, spun out of a Solomon Byrd sack and drifted toward the left sideline. On third-and-18, Penix floated a pass while falling out of bounds.

Culp caught it through the hands of USC linebacker Eric Gentry, hung on and tapped his foot before tumbling to the turf for a 22-yard touchdown.

“It’s something we practiced a lot in the offseason, trying to find a way to get into Mike’s vision as best as we can,” Culp said. “Instincts kicked in, and it was just backyard football. I’ve never been in a situation in a game where I’ve been so wide open that I’ve put my hand up and waved, like, ‘You can throw it.’ That’s not what I’m coached to do.

“But on that play, I obviously wanted to help Mike out. We were in a scramble situation and I threw my hand up and I think he saw it last second and I was able to make the play and seize the opportunity.”

“A lot of times guys are worried about their feet and they don’t catch the ball first,” DeBoer said. “He catches it, has to fight for it and still gets almost two feet down. Just a great play. He’s done that a few times for us. I think about the Arizona game, on a third-down play, highly contested. It’s cool seeing Dev have these moments. He’s worked really hard to be prepared for those times when they come.”

As No. 5 Washington (9-0) prepares to host No. 13 Utah (7-2) in a sold-out Husky Stadium on Saturday, the 2021 season feels like a distant memory, a faded photograph … for the team and its tight end.

“As a young player especially, it was really hard on me,” Culp said of the drops and ensuing doubt. “Transitioning into playing at this level, I just felt like a lot of people didn’t understand that I was still learning so much and developing so much as a football player. There was just a lot that I needed to learn. The game was really, really fast for me.

“So some of those things you would see (online) – ‘butterfingers’ or ‘this guy can’t catch …’ – all those things really gives you fuel. It hurts at first, but then it gives you a reason to get up and attack your day, so you can improve and show everybody that that’s not who you are. You’re capable of so much more.”

In the seasons since, Culp’s capability has come to the forefront. He has corralled 12 of 15 targets this fall, without a single drop.

His forecast has emphatically flipped.

“My first target was against Utah my redshirt freshman year, and it was a drop (on a critical fourth-and-1 play in a 33-28 loss in 2019). To be able to flip it now and be a senior and be able to look back at all the plays I’ve been able to make and contribute to the wins we’ve had, it makes me proud.

“Because I know at the end of the day, what happens in the dark will come out in the light. I’ve put in the work, and I will continue to put in the work to get better and be able to make plays and help my team win on Saturdays.”