Washington losing Odunze, Johnson to NFL draft

Sports

Washington is losing two skill players to the NFL draft: wide receiver Rome Odunze and running back Dillon Johnson.

Odunze led the nation in receiving yards in 2023 and earned first-team All-America honors. He enters the draft as Mel Kiper’s No. 5 overall player and No. 2 wide receiver.

Odunze emerged as the key skill position cog in Washington’s unlikely run to the national title game, which included a Pac-12 title and 21-game winning streak that ended against Michigan in the College Football Playoff title game.

Johnson led Washington with 1,195 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry this season after spending his first three at Mississippi State.

Odunze nearly left for the NFL last year, when he said he got feedback from the NFL that he’d be a top 100 prospect. He bet on himself, staying at Washington and it paid off for both sides.

“I think this has been something that’s been brewing for a long time,” he said of his decision to go to the NFL. “Not just the last week or so. I wanted to do whatever I could this season and give it one last ride.”

Odunze’s decision doesn’t come as a surprise. While he had a year of eligibility remaining after redshirting in 2020, his seismic production and enticing measurables — 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds — made him a quick riser in the eyes of NFL scouts throughout the year.

Odunze admitted to mixed emotions with his dream of entering the NFL draft coming so soon after a tough loss on the biggest stage. But he reflected to a college career that saw him tied to three head coaches, endure the 2020 COVID-addled season and go 4-8 in 2021.

“I would say it’s been more overwhelmingly grateful than anything,” Odunze told ESPN. “Of course, that last game was a bit sour. I’ll have that carry over all my emotions from what I’ve been through. But from where I was when I started and where I ended, I’m superbly grateful.”

Odunze put up perhaps the most statistically dominant season by a wide receiver in college football this season. Along with his 1,640 yards that led the nation, he grabbed 13 touchdown passes and had 10 games of 100 or more yards. He teamed up with fellow receivers Ja’Lynn Polk and Jalen McMillan for the country’s best trio.

Odunze thrived in advanced receiving metrics. He led the nation with 80% of his catches going for a first down or a touchdown. Odunze also led the FBS with 21 catches thrown more than 20 yards down the field, 10 of which were contested catches.

While Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. is ahead of Odunze in nearly every draft projection, Odunze did rank ahead of him in key advanced statistical metrics, per ESPN Stats & Information. Odunze’s 44% contested catch rate was tied for fifth among players with at least 40 contested targets, well ahead of Harrison’s 32%. Odunze’s 20 forced missed tackles were well ahead of Harrison’s six.

Odunze acknowledged that being in the race for the draft’s top wide receiver with players like Harrison and LSU’s Malik Nabers is “awesome.”

He added: “I think it’s a real honor to be up there with some of those guys. All of us are going to be compared to one another, and it’s not about tearing other guys down. It’s about making yourself the best possible option and putting out the best possible numbers and statistics. Of course, I want to be the No. 1 wide receiver. I think I’m the best wide receiver in college football.”

To get into that top-tier conversation took a journey he described as one of “delayed gratification.” But it’s a path he’s grateful for. He said he’s appreciative of the coaching staffs, the support staffs, his teammates and the equipment staff at Washington.

He also made sure to thank his entire family, singling out both sets of his grandparents — Wayne Bunnell, Helen Bunnell, James Odunze and Laetitia Odunze — with whom he’s excited to share the moment.

“I’m so close to accomplishing one of my greatest dreams,” he said, “and along the way, to make so many friends and family members proud. I get to bring that excitement and joy and rush of emotion to so many people’s hearts. That’s really why I do it.”

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