Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now
University of Washington Huskies Football

How Rome Odunze built himself into an ‘almost unfair’ weapon for Washington

Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze catches a touchdown against Tulsa on Sept. 9 at Husky Stadium in Seattle.  (Tribune News Service)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Rome Odunze is not afraid.

Everyone knows that now.

But for Washington’s surging wide receiver, it was not always that way. As JaMarcus Shephard – the Huskies’ associate head coach and wide receivers coach – told the Times on Wednesday: “I’m always telling him how afraid he is of various things in his life – in his personal life, his football life. I tell him how scared he is, and he says to me over and over again that he fears (only) God.

“One of the things I told him he’s afraid of is just being a savage out there with 50/50 balls, and that NFL teams saw that he was afraid of that as well. ‘That’s the reason why your draft stock wasn’t as high as you thought it was going to be after last season.’ I believe right now he’s a man on a mission to prove to everybody that if you put the ball even close to him, he’ll come up with it.”

Last Saturday, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior provided proof – totaling a team-high eight catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns in No. 5 Washington’s 36-33 win over No. 9 Oregon.

With 10:38 left in the third quarter, quarterback Michael Penix Jr. took a shotgun snap on third-and-2, looked left and looped a jump ball Odunze’s way.

The fourth-year Washington wideout leapt through the arms of Oregon cornerback Dontae Manning, ripped the ball away and celebrated by rocking an imaginary baby.

“Manning’s trying to use his hands,” ABC color commentator Kirk Herbstreit sid, analyzing the 17-yard score. “He’s trying to get in position and actually wasn’t in bad position. But Odunze, like he’s done all game and all year, adjusts back to the football thrown by Penix.”

With 1:44 left in the fourth quarter, Penix and Odunze doubled down.

Trailing 33-29, Penix recognized man coverage on an overmatched corner, snapped the ball and went to work. The Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback set his feet and released, allowing Odunze to flip his hips and snare a back-shoulder bullet, as backup cornerback Trikweze Bridges failed to dislodge the ball.

“The amount of work that goes into that last play that Rome made is hours and weeks and months of training and time and watching the ball,” UW offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said. “The number of times those kids do that and make those throws and those catches (in the offseason) … it’s thousands. Just the desire and tenacity to make your skill set the best in the country, that’s Rome.”

“Odunze continues to be almost unfair at the college level,” ABC play-by-play man Chris Fowler said as Odunze pumped a fist following the winning touchdown.

Not by accident.

After all, the Las Vegas product was named a first-team All-Pac-12 performer in 2022, led the conference in receiving yards … and was decidedly unsatisfied. Despite finishing with 75 catches, 1,145 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in 12 games, Odunze set out to gain strength, without sacrificing speed or explosiveness.

“With all those receivers, it was a goal to put on a little mass and fight for those contested catches,” head strength and conditioning coach Ron McKeefery said. “He put on 14 pounds total from last year. The big factor there was trying to make sure he put on lean body mass. Anybody can put on 14 pounds if they eat the wrong stuff, but he was very diligent with his nutrition. There was constant check-ins with (director of football performance nutrition Ali VandenBerghe), doing DEXA scans (that measure body fat and composition), making sure that mass was being put on the right way.”

“It was just buying into the program, really – getting in there and making it a point that every weight I touch in the weight room, I’m getting stronger and I’m believing in the lifts,” Odunze said. “That really carried over for me with my muscle mass and body composition.”

As a result, Odunze improved in every quantifiable area.

Category | 2022 | 2023

Weight | 201 pounds | 215 pounds

Bench press | 265 pounds | 285 pounds

Squat | 405 pounds | 430 pounds

40-yard dash | 4.50 seconds | 4.34 seconds

Broad jump | 9 feet, 7 inches | 10 feet, 1 inch

Vertical jump | 35.8 inches | 37.1 inches

In April, when asked where Odunze had most improved, Grubb answered. “Weight room. Weight room. He’s 215 pounds now, and he looks stronger. He looks more physical. Keeping his body healthy throughout the season, that was Rome’s limiting factor: continuing to beat press coverage. That’s where people are going to continue to look for answers against a big guy. I think as long as he can do that and be physical through it, he’ll be even better.”

Through six wins, Odunze’s 122.7 receiving yards per game ranks second in the nation. He leads a solid receiving group in catches (40), receiving yards (736), yards per reception (18.4) and total touchdowns (seven). He’s also on pace to eclipse Reggie Williams’ record for receiving yards in a season (1,454 in 2002), even if the Huskies fall short of a 14th game.

Halfway through his junior season, Odunze is projected as a borderline top-10 pick and a front-runner (alongside Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr.) for the Biletnikoff Award, honoring college football’s premier pass-catcher.

“With Rome, he’s a competitor,” McKeefery said. “I don’t think last year he felt like he was the best, and he wants to be the best. I think he was a man on a mission all last (offseason). He really got in with Grubb and Shep and took his mental game to another level. He got in here and trained his tail off and put on size and mass while maintaining his speed and athleticism.

“The thing that maybe goes more unnoticed is, he’s a glue guy. He’s a guy that unites and makes everybody around him better. We’re very fortunate with him and Jalen McMillan, Ja’Lynn Polk, (Germie) Bernard, Giles (Jackson), Denzel (Boston). All those guys feed off each other. Rome’s a catalyst amongst that group.”