SEATTLE — When coach Kalen DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb got to work at Washington in early December 2021, the facility was a bit of a ghost town. DeBoer planned to fill the bulk of his staff with several of his assistants from Fresno State, but five of them remained with the Bulldogs to see out their bowl game.
Only Grubb and cornerbacks coach/recruiting coordinator Julius Brown joined DeBoer immediately, leaving them to evaluate the roster to determine what to prioritize in recruiting and through the transfer portal. One thing that stood out to Grubb right away was how much talent there was at receiver. The production from Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk wasn’t eye-popping in 2021, but Grubb saw their potential.
There was just one problem.
“Rome, J-Mac and J.P. all were in the transfer portal or talking about transferring basically in the first week I was here,” Grubb said. “It’s just me and Kalen. Nobody else is here yet [on the offensive staff]. So, my first 10 days, all I did was watch film with those three guys and try to convince them on the reasons to stay.”
The pitch boiled down to this: DeBoer and Grubb had been successful everywhere they had been. Several receivers had put up big numbers in their offense and they had a vision for how to use all three to maximize their potential in different ways. Grubb showed them film of the offense from previous stops and how each player would fit in. Here’s a concept from Eastern Michigan. This is what they did at Fresno State. And, of course, there was the season DeBoer spent as the OC at Indiana in 2019, when the Hoosiers — the Indiana Hoosiers — ranked third in the Big Ten in offense.
Grubb’s intent was to get the receivers excited about the offense and understand how they’d be used, but as he showed the cutups from Indiana, Odunze couldn’t help but notice a certain left-handed quarterback.
“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness,'” Odunze said. “He’s placing the ball wherever he wants to every play.”
At around the same time, quarterback Michael Penix Jr. finalized his own transfer decision. After four years at Indiana, each of which ended prematurely due to injury, it was time for a fresh start. For Washington, which was in the market for a veteran quarterback, the stars were aligning.
“I had a lot of people calling me, a lot of people [direct messaging] me and stuff like that about transferring,” Penix said. “But I never answered. Once I heard from DeBoer, I knew where I wanted to be.”
Penix’s move to Washington couldn’t have worked out much better. The receivers stayed and over the past two seasons, the Huskies have been among the most explosive offenses in college football. This year, Washington ranks No. 1 nationally in total offense (569.4 yards per game), No. 1 in passing yards (446.4 ypg) and No. 3 in scoring (46.0 points per game), turning Penix into ESPN.com’s leading Heisman Trophy candidate in the process.
PENIX SHOWED SIGNS early he had a bright future in football.
His father played running back at Tennessee Tech and his uncle played at South Florida, so when he was old enough — around 4 or 5 years old — his parents signed him up. It was one of many sports he played to stay busy, growing up in Tampa, Florida.
As a freshman in high school, he earned his first scholarship offer — from nearby Florida Atlantic — preceding a standout career at Tampa Bay Tech, where he was the county player of the year.
For most of that time, Penix thought he was headed to the SEC. He committed to Tennessee under then-coach Butch Jones prior to his junior year in the spring of 2017 and spent the next two seasons preparing to go to Rocky Top. Then came the coaching change. Jones was out; Jeremy Pruitt was in.
“It was crazy. The new coach comes in and you’re like, ‘OK, I’m about to sign in a couple weeks,’ and you don’t hear anything from the coaching staff,” Penix said. Eventually Penix learned, through his high school coach, that his offer had been pulled. Instead, Tennessee signed J.T. Shrout, who made eight appearances in four years at UT, played the 2022 season at Colorado and is now at Arkansas State.
Left without many options so late in the recruiting process, Penix ultimately decided between Indiana and Florida State, choosing the Hoosiers, in part, because former UT graduate assistant Nick Sheridan was the quarterbacks coach in Bloomington.
“It was certainly a rapid process,” said Sheridan, who is now the tight ends coach at Washington. “But it was nice because at least for me, I had known Mike and his family for a long time. I think he had braces when we first met. He was just a kid.”
A kid with star potential. Penix earned playing time as a true freshman, but his season ended in October, while playing in his third game, when he suffered a torn anterior crucial ligament in a close loss to Penn State.
“That was my first time ever getting injured in my life,” Penix said. “I never had a sprained ankle or anything, so when I got an ACL tear — to be honest, going into college, I had never heard of an ACL tear. I didn’t know what that was.”
The rehab went about as well as it could have and Penix returned in time to compete for the starting job with two-year starter Peyton Ramsey in front of DeBoer, who arrived from Fresno State months earlier as the new offensive coordinator. In what was considered a surprise at the time, Penix beat out Ramsey.
“It wasn’t what Peyton didn’t do,” then-Indiana coach Tom Allen said at the time. “It was more of what I believe Mike can be.”
And in six starts that year, Penix showed flashes of what he could be, helping the Hoosiers to a 5-1 record in those games before a shoulder injury again ended his season prematurely. At the time, Penix’s QBR (81.6) was comparable to Clemson‘s Trevor Lawrence (82.0), Oregon’s Justin Herbert (77.5) and Iowa State‘s Brock Purdy (73.9), all of whom have since developed into franchise quarterbacks in the NFL.
The next two years followed a similarly frustrating script: He began the season as the starter only to see the season end in injuries (another torn ACL in 2020; a shoulder injury in 2021). By the time the 2021 season was winding down, Penix had graduated and knew it was time to move on.
“[The injuries were] my first time really seeing true adversity and I just had to understand that not everything’s going to be perfect and I’m going to have to persevere through a lot of things throughout my career — and I was able to,” Penix said. “It allowed me to get to where I’m at today, but it just gave me a different perspective of the game and just not take any play for granted.”
PENIX WAS UP front with Washington about his plan. He knew he had the talent to get a shot in the NFL, he just needed to prove he could stay healthy enough to earn that opportunity.
“He told us, ‘Hey, it’s my intention that I’m going to play one year and do really good and hopefully get drafted and move on,”’ Grubb said. “Because for Mike prior to [the 2022 season] he was like, ‘If things go well. I don’t want to risk getting hurt again.'”
The staff understood his logic and was happy to welcome him under those circumstances.
But before that, he had to win the job and earn the trust of his teammates. There was widely-held assumption that he was the heavy favorite to win the job after arriving in December, but the dynamics of the quarterback competition were interesting considering the other two players were the two-year returning starter (Dylan Morris) and ESPN’s former No. 1-ranked high school pocket passer (Sam Huard).
For Morris, what stood out immediately was how quickly Penix, who was already familiar with the new system having played for DeBoer, processed the game.
“From Day 1, I saw he was really talented throwing the ball, but it was the field vision,” Morris said. “That’s the thing I’ve come to understand about him and I really try to learn from him — his field vision is just on another level.
“I’m going through reads and am like, ‘OK, I’m allowed to throw this or that,’ but he’s alerting something that’s really not necessarily part of the progression. He just sees it and it’s kind of funny you ask him, ‘How’d you see that?’ ‘He’s like, I don’t know, I just saw it.’ I’m like, ‘Man, that’s pretty elite.'”
Penix wasn’t officially named the starter until about a week and a half before the Huskies’ 2022 opener against Kent State, but by that time the writing was on the wall. Shortly after, he was voted a team captain in a nearly unanimous player vote.
“We all kind of rallied behind him,” Odunze said. “And I feel like that gave him more confidence as well. But he just stepped up his leadership to another level just understanding that, hey, he’s going to be the leader of this offense and this team.”
After Washington went 4-8 the year before, the Huskies were a revelation in 2022. They reached the 11-win mark for the fifth time in school history, went 3-0 against ranked teams and capped the season with a win against Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl to finish ranked No. 8 in the AP poll.
Penix led the nation in passing, finished No. 8 in the Heisman voting and, perhaps most importantly, he stayed healthy for the entire season. Short of winning the Pac-12, the season followed the script he hoped it would. Then he rewrote the ending.
Instead of opting out of the bowl game and declaring for the NFL draft — a reasonable route considering recent trends and his own injury history — Penix announced he was returning for another season.
“I just felt like we had unfinished business and there were more things that I wanted to accomplish and the more things I felt like this team could accomplish,” Penix said. “I knew I had the opportunity to be a part of it again, and I knew that just with another opportunity, we can do something great.”
To some degree, Penix’s understanding that he could make some money through name, image and likeness rules factored into the decision, but that was only part of it.
“This is one thing I love telling people, I think it’s the epitome of Mike, which is very different from — and not a lot of people would say this or report it or even admit it — but Mike made his decision prior to having any NIL deals in place,” Grubb said. “I just think that’s such a critical point of who Mike is that he wanted to be here and had enough trust in what was going to happen here. The reality was we knew something would happen [with NIL], but there were no contracts in place or ‘this is what it’s going to be’ or anything like that.”
Last week, Penix and Odunze became the first college football players to sign NIL deals with Adidas and will participate in brand marketing campaigns, the company announced. Penix also has deals with Beats by Dre, trading card company Panini America and local apparel company Simply Seattle, along with other opportunities lined up by UW’s NIL collective, Montlake Futures.
Penix’s decision to return had a domino effect with the team’s other top players, with at least five others — Bralen Trice, Zion Tupuola-Fetui, Tuli Letuligasenoa, Odunze and McMillan — also making public announcements they would return to school.
“I was going over everything I could, calculating everything I could, talking with my family, with my dad, who is heavily involved in that as well,” Odunze said of his decision. “I was going over everything, but in the back of my mind was always, ‘I’ll be coming back with Penix.'”
GRUBB’S EARLY VISION for how to use Odunze, McMillan and Polk has largely played out as prophesized. They made a strong case for the best trio of receivers in college football last season with a combined 195 catches for 2,937 yards with 22 touchdowns, perhaps rivaled only by Ohio State‘s Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming (185/2,947/30).
“They reset the bar completely here at Washington in terms of what it looks like to play receiver here,” receivers coach JaMarcus Shephard said. “And they’re trying to hold each other, let alone the young guys in the room, accountable to not only upholding but uplifting that standard every single day at practice.”
This year, they’ve taken it to a new level.
“I knew the offense, a lot of the plays and different coverages and different schemes. So I understood where I wanted my guys and where we had to get to in different areas of the field to be able to make those plays,” Penix said. “But now being in Year 2 now, everybody understands it. Everybody understands why Coach Grubb is changing the play or why he’s calling a certain play and the look that we want. It just allows everybody to play much faster and more on the same page.”
In Odunze, the Huskies have a prototypical No. 1 option. He’s a threat to stretch the field, but equally adept in the screen game or on underneath routes. ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Odunze as the No. 2 receiver in college football.
“I say this to everyone. Rome is a 10-year pro,” Grubb said. “I just don’t mean he catches really well — he could probably run for president, too. Responsible, tough, smart, personable. He’s the guy.”
But one of the keys to Washington’s success is how well the receivers complement each other. McMillan controls the middle of the field from the slot. Polk might be the best route runner.
The group got deeper in the offseason with the arrival of one-time UW commit Germie Bernard, who spent his freshman season in 2022 at Michigan State. Bernard’s 17 catches rank just behind McMillan (20) for fourth on the team, but had a breakout performance against Arizona on Sept. 30, when he led the team with eight catches for 98 yards.
Penix is among the national leaders in every meaningful statistical category despite exiting early in four of the five games because the score was already out of hand. Washington would rank in the top half of the country in scoring just using its first half scoring average (30.2 ppg).
FEW GAMES IN college football history have ever featured two offenses as explosive as Saturday’s game between Oregon and Washington.
Countering with their own Heisman candidate in quarterback Bo Nix, the Ducks rank No. 2 nationally in total offense (556.8 ppg), No. 1 in scoring margin (39.8 ppg) and No. 2 in scoring (51.6 ppg).
The teams’ combined 97.6 ppg is the most between teams 5-0 or better since 2008, and the highest combined scoring average entering a Pac-12 game all-time, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
It also marks the final time the schools will play as members of the Pac-12, before moving to the Big Ten as a package deal next season.
Given what is set to be impacted — College Football Playoff positioning, two Heisman campaigns, the final Pac-12 title race — this might be the most anticipated Oregon-Washington game of all-time and a chance for Penix to further cement his legacy at Husky Stadium.