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2024 Sugar Bowl preview: Washington WR Rome Odunze is a matchup nightmare

The favorite target of Michael Penix couldn’t even be slowed by a broken rib and punctured lung.

NCAA Football: Washington at Oregon State Craig Strobeck-USA TODAY Sports

Washington Huskies wide receiver Rome Odunze has been putting the nation on notice with his play this year, further developing a remarkable connection with quarterback Michael Penix Jr. that has led him to his second 1,000-yard season in a row with the Huskies. With 1,428 receiving yards on the year and 13 touchdowns, Odunze has caught the eye of NFL scouts and is likely to go in the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft.

“Odunze put up four straight 100-yard receiving games to begin the season, and I love his combination of size and speed,” Mel Kiper wrote in his evaluation of Odunze. “He’s big, and he knows how to use his body to shield defenders. Watch him adjust on this touchdown catch against Boise State. Since 2020, Odunze has 195 catches for 2,958 yards and 24 scores. He’s used both inside and out. He can make defensive backs miss after the catch.”

After four years with the Huskies, Odunze has totaled the second-most receiving yards in program history behind only Reggie Williams. The consensus four-star recruit from Las Vegas Nevada committed to Washington in 2019, refusing offers from the likes of Alabama, Oklahoma, and Florida.

Odunze could have easily declared for the daft after his productive junior year, but decided to stay and try his luck for another year with Penix.

“Michael Penix was a factor, for sure,” Odunze said. “I think Mike wants me back. We talked it up, especially after he decided to come back and I congratulated him.”

This decision ended up working well for the talented receiver, as Mel Kiper has him predicted to go fifth overall in this year’s NFL draft. The Batman and Robin show between Penix and Odunze has been electric all season, helping the Huskies to an undefeated season, conference championship, and College Football Playoff berth.

Of course, the decision to stay for his senior year of course came with the risk of injury that could put his NFL career on the line. In Week Five against Arizona, Odunze broke a rib and punctured a lung recovering an onside kick, an injury that could sideline most players for most, if not all of the season. However, the talented, NFL-bound Odunze was not deterred, remaining in the hospital until nearly 5 a.m. that night before his mother and two UW trainers took turns driving him on a 23-hour road trip back to Seattle.

Luckily, the injury came before a bye week that gave Odunze time to recover.

The following week against Oregon, Odunze totaled 8 receptions on 12 targets for 128 yards and two touchdowns. Punctured lungs can take up to six to eight weeks to heal, and in those six weeks, Odunze totaled 49 receptions for 820 yards and nine touchdowns.

“I definitely feel [the rib injury] it a little bit,” Odunze said. “There’s a little bit of calluses built up where the rib was broken.”

With a month to heal since the Pac-12 Championship game, Odunze should be close to full strength against Texas in next Monday’s Sugar Bowl after recording career highs in receptions (81), receiving yards (1,428), touchdowns (13), and yards per reception (17.6)..

Odunze works almost exclusively outside with an average depth of target of 15.6 yards and remarkable hands — the 6’3, 215-pounder only has three drops this season for a drop rate of 3.6 percent. How much of a vertical threat is Odunze? More than a third of his targets are 20 or more yards downfield, producing 655 receiving yards and six touchdowns this season on 32.8 yards per reception.

PFF

A second season working with Penix has vastly improved the rapport between quarterback and receiver as Penix is throwing more 50-50 balls to Odunze, a level of trust paid off by the big pass catcher pulling in 17-of-24 contested catches (70.8 percent). In Odunze’s previous three seasons, he totaled eight total contested catches. It’s been boom or bust for Penix when targeting Odunze, however, with six of his nine interceptions coming when trying to get his No. 1 wide receive the ball.

The lofty NFL Draft rankings reflect the full package that Odunze brings to the table with Washington reporting a 4.34 40-yard dash and 37.1-inch vertical this offseason. He comes down with contested catches because of his strong hands and ability to high point the football. And his 4.19 pro agility translates to pads, as evidenced by his 5.3 YAC/reception and his 83-yard punt return touchdown against Cal.

Since Odunze unquestionably represents a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses and is set to provide a major challenge to a Texas secondary that looked leaky at times in the second half of the season.