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2024 Sugar Bowl preview: Deep Washington WR corps gives Michael Penix options

Shutting down Rome Odunze — assuming that’s even possible — isn’t enough to limit the passing game of the Huskies.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

When the No. 3 Texas Longhorns face off against the No. 2 Washington Huskies next Monday in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, Terry Joseph’s secondary won’t just have to deal with matchup nightmare Rome Odunze catching passes from Heisman finalist Michael Penix Jr. — the Longhorns will also have to slow down Ja’Lynn Polk and a healthy Jalen McMillan, pass-catching threats that have helped make the Huskies such a multi-dimensional attack.

Entering the season as the third option for the Huskies, Ja’Lynn Polk has taken advantage of every opportunity and worked his way up the depth chart. At the beginning of the season, the one-two punch for this Huskies offense was set to be Rome Odunze as the one and Jalen McMillan as the number two option out of the slot.

However, McMillan suffered a knee injury against Michigan State in Week Three that sidelined him until the very last game of the regular season. This is a next-man-up game, a mentality that Polk ran away with — former Red Raider worked out wide and in the slot to replace McMillan, racking up 100-plus yards in five of the next six outings.

To close the season Polk finished the year with 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns with only four drops on the year on 92 targets. Nobody wishes for injuries to happen, but the loss of McMillan opened the door for Polk to post his first-ever 1,000-yard season and add another high-level weapon to the already impressive passing game for the University of Washington.

A standout at Lufkin, Polk signed with Texas Tech in the 2020 recruiting class as a consensus high three-star prospect, starting seven games in his lone season in Lubbock and recording 28 receptions for 264 yards and two touchdowns. When Polk entered the NCAA transfer portal, he ended up briefly reuniting with high school teammate Caleb Berry, a running back who transferred to UIW for the 2022 season.

“He just let me know that Washington is a great place to be,” Polk told The Seattle Times. “He showed me some of the videos of when he went to visit when he was going through his process. It wasn’t me just seeing this recently. I’ve seen Washington through Caleb’s process and his decision. I had a little bonus (recruitment) even before they started talking to me.”

Polk broke out for the Huskies last season with 41 catches for 694 yards and six touchdowns, but now that McMillan is back from his knee injury, the Red Raiders transfer is once again the third option for Penix. However, despite two down games to close the season, Polk adds another dangerous weapon for Penix in the Sugar Bowl. Standing at 6’2 204 pounds, Polk has the speed and quickness to play both out wide, where he has played 58.7 percent of snaps and in the slot at 41.4 percent.

McMillan will certainly return to the second option in the first round of the playoff, as indicated in the Pac-12 Championship against Oregon where he totaled nine receptions for 131 yards. McMillan had an incredible year in 2022 as the one-two punch behind Odunze with 79 receptions for 1,098 yards and nine touchdowns before deciding to return for another chance at the College Football Playoffs.

The 6’1, 193-pound slot receiver looked poised to have another standout season, starting the first three games of the year with 305 yards and three touchdowns on 24 receptions. However, this promising season looked to potentially be cut short after McMillan went down late in Washington’s win over Michigan State.

McMillan was able to return to a full role after suiting up for a few games and getting back on the field when it mattered most.

“I’ve been taking a break really,” McMillan said after the Pac-12 Championship win over Oregon. “Not a break but I’m getting my legs back and still staying in the playbook and getting my knee having the same tolerance with breaking and stuff, so it’s been great.”

With three potential NFL-caliber receivers healthy and ready to go in the College Football Playoffs, the Texas secondary will have their hands full against a dangerous trio of versatile receivers and a Heisman-caliber quarterback who can seemingly make any throw on the field.