Welcome to 22 days before kickoff! Can I get a “Hell yeah!”?
*Waits to hear someone yell “hell yeah.”*
Right, today we’re talking about true freshmen. Since the NCAA isn’t counting this year towards eligibility because of that whole pandemic issue, Washington (and everyone) finds themselves in an unprecedented position: being able to experiment with impunity with true freshmen and playing time.
So with those circumstances surrounding the season, we ask ourselves:
Which true freshman will have the biggest impact?
OLB Sav’ell Smalls
6’4” 244 lbs
Savvy is, of course, the most obvious answer at first. After all, he is the first five star to sign with Washington under the Petersen-Lake regime and the first five star from Washington to sign with the Dawgs since Matt Tuiasosopo, who never ended up playing for them anyway since he went directly into professional baseball instead. (The last Washingtonian five star to sign and play for the Huskies was, of course, Reggie Williams.)
Smalls’ opportunity to make an impact early increased further when The Guy at OLB Joe Tryon opted out of this year to prepare for the NFL. That means, until proven definitively otherwise, the players we can assume are ahead of Smalls otherwise in the depth chart are Laiatu Latu, Ryan Bowman, and ZTF. Of course, there’s Bralen Trice and Jordan Lolohea in that room too who are both older than Smalls — although Lolohea is still a freshman due to his Mormon mission — but I’m not going to assume either of them are ahead of him until proven otherwise.
If there’s one thing getting in the way of Smalls being the choice here, it’s that it’s generally accepted he’s a bit less refined than some five stars. “A bit” being the key word here, though; it’s not like he’s “a project” given his talent level is so high — and even a raw-ish five star still has better moves than the vast majority. Furthermore, he’s already stood out per Coach Kwiatkowski and others as they’ve spoken about him in virtual interviews with the media.
When asked which freshmen are standing out, Lake mentions the two running backs (Sam Adams and Sunday), the outside linebackers (Sav'ell Smalls and Lolohea), the o-linemen and the secondary. So, pretty much everybody.— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) October 9, 2020
Kwiaktowski has said a couple times that Sav'ell Smalls has "flashed" during practices so far.— Christian Caple (@ChristianCaple) October 11, 2020
It’s all but completely certain: Sav’ell Smalls will play. It’s just a matter of how much and how quickly he adapts to the college game that will determine how big of an impact he makes.
C Myles Murao
6’2” 330 lbs
Usually I don’t expect linemen to contribute as true freshmen; obviously Washington under Pete/Lake isn’t a stranger to starting true frosh on the offensive line, with Nick Harris and Trey Adams forcing themselves into early playing time in 2015 and 2016, respectively, but they’re the exception. For almost all offensive linemen coming out of high school, they just aren’t physically ready to do the job, much less do the job and stay healthy. Simply put, starting a true freshman on the line is often a recipe for disaster both short- and long-term.
But Myles Murao would be the best of the exceptions.
Other than being the highest-rated offensive lineman the Dawgs have had in a hot minute, he’s exceptionally intriguing in that he specializes specifically in center and was considered 2020’s fourth best center prospect in the country. Not only are those specialists rare, but their high school rating is often lower than a prospect of equal value who’d project elsewhere on the line — especially those with the coveted, exceedingly rare physical traits that make for all-world tackles. That by itself doesn’t mean much, but Murao’s performances both in high school and against other high school All-Americans backs up the fact that he is really, really good. At the All-American Bowl practices, game, The Opening, and other camps, he frequently beat the top defensive players in the country like current Clemson defensive lineman Bryan Bresee, Florida DT Gervon Dexter, and Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux. (Also, Bresee was somehow rated 101 on 247Sports, which... I believe means he’s good.)
Myles Murao with three excellent reps to open the final day of linemen one-on-ones. pic.twitter.com/Vj7IeEoswa— Gerard Martinez (@gmartlive) July 3, 2019
There are two other things that would get in the way of Murao becoming the starting center. One: it’s the most intellectually challenging of the line’s positions and two: there’s already a guy there, it seems. The offseason reports that have since been confirmed during fall camp were that senior Luke Wattenberg would be moving there in place of current Cleveland Brown Nick Harris. That being said, Murao is a natural center; if he’s an improvement there over Watty (and last year’s back-up center and versatile lineman Matteo Mele), he has a shot.
Luke Wattenberg says the guys working at center right now are him, Matteo Mele, Will Pliska and Myles Murao.— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) October 15, 2020
It’s a reasonable assumption that Murao will be the starting center next year regardless of whatever happens now. The question is just whether he’ll be so good now as to jumpstart that timeline.
TE Mark Redman
6’6” 245 lbs
There are three true freshman tight ends and two who could reasonably be candidates here — Jack Yary being the other. I chose to include Redman over him primarily because at this point he’s probably more refined plus Yary’s only been with the program since August after signing with USC and then going back to the Dawgs. Still, I should put the disclaimer here that it’s totally possible that Yary makes more of an impact than Redman, although if either make a lot of noise I’d put it down as 70+% chance that Redman would be the one.
Redman’s interesting in that he’d be a type of weapon UW hasn’t had for a while. Hunter Bryant was a freak athlete but was more comparable to a giant receiver than a true tight end, while Cade Otton (and Drew Sample and Will Dissly for that matter) is a big traditional semi-truck of a football player. Both of those are awesome and frankly I think Otton’s one of the players I’m most grateful to have on this team, but Redman is somehow both bigger than Otton and looks like much more of a passing game threat than Otton (or Sample, or Dissly) did coming out of high school.
Consider that in high school, Otton, Sample, and Dissly were listed at 212, 234, and 230 lbs and 6’5”, 6’4”, and 6’3”, respectively. Redman entered college at 6’6” 240 lbs already while appearing more naturally fluid even at that starting size. Washington quarterbacks just haven’t had a toy like that for a while.
On top of that, he’s a nasty blocker in the run.
So: he has natural receiving and route-running skills, is versatile out wide or on the line of scrimmage, has a bigger catch radius than pretty much anyone on the team, is already the biggest tight end Washington’s had in a long time and will continue to grow, and is an asset in the run game too. Sounds kind of good?
Then take into consideration that the veteran tight end room has relatively alright depth but without anyone who’s proven other than Otton, and it gives Redman a clear opportunity to force himself onto the field. The two guys in front of him would probably be Devin Culp and now-on-scholarship Jack Westover, but neither of them are even close to insurmountable for a player of Redman’s caliber.
To be honest, Redman seems like the kind of pass-catcher that UW’s used to always going against when Stanford always seems to pull one out of their asses each year, between Kaden Smith, Dalton Schultz, Colby Parkinson, the technically-a-receiver-but-still JJAW... And as we all remember (or don’t because we misery-drank until blacking out), those guys suuuuuuck to play against.
WR Jalen McMillan
6’2” 182 lbs
Other than Smalls, Jalen McMillan was the highest-rated of UW’s 2020 class. As a receiver, he’s a smart route-runner, long-limbed target with the catch radius to prove it, and, rounding it all out, very fast. His long strides make that speed even more dangerous because of how deceptive it is, causing defenders to often take poor angles and miss their one shot at stopping him.
For an example of this, I highly recommend watching his All-American Bowl performance, where he took his first catch to the house and in the process showed off that trait:
And on the first play of the All-American Bowl, Jalen McMillan scores a 75-yard touchdown. pic.twitter.com/QGfgM4DaFi— Carter Karels (@CarterKarels) January 4, 2020
That being said, number ratings for high schools recruit are only half-useful when looked at without context. Credit to ratings makers for attempting to have consistent methodology, but the factors that go into deciding how good a player is are sometimes different than the factors that go into deciding how good he could or will be. This is particularly prudent when looking at linemen, certain DBs, and many quarterbacks, but applies to everyone to varying extents. (For example, the Dylan Morris versus Cale Millen debate of 2K19, where Morris was compositely rated higher as a better high school quarterback, but a ceiling-achieving Millen would be much better than a ceiling-achieving Morris.)
Similarly, the context of the program and the position room matters. In other words, ratings very much matter, but not all five stars — or three stars — are the same or in the same boat.
In the case of McMillan, there aren’t too many complicating factors, but I included that annoyingly lengthy prelude because there is one factor about him and one factor about UW’s status that might limit his snap count as a true freshman.
Those are that A) he’d likely benefit from adding some weight for durability and to beat physical defensive backs and B) Washington, despite losing many senior receivers, has a lot of way more talented receivers than those now-graduated seniors, many of whom have a decent amount of experience. Respect to Andre Baccellia, Aaron Fuller, and Quinton Pounds for their years of contributions to Washington, but from a pure talent perspective, there’s no comparison between 2019’s receiving room and 2020’s.
The likely starters to begin this year will be Ty Jones, Puka Nacua, and Terrell Bynum, all of whom are blue chips — and not the kind of “highly-developed, high floor out of high school but ‘meh’ ceiling” blue chips previously mentioned. Jones is a huge pass-catching target with good feet, Puka a physical terror who makes defensive backs work really hard, and Bynum an increasingly-dependable possession receiver. Behind them, Marquis Spiker showed up more as last year went on, and Austin Osborne has apparently looked quite good this fall. Both are blue chips, too, not some jags to easily be bypassed.
From a talent perspective, McMillan is better than mmmmmmm pretty much all of these players, save maybe Puka, and will almost certainly be a better player over the course of his career than, again, probably all of them. It’s also super likely he sees snaps quite soon in the season, and not not likely that he becomes a starter this year. It’s just that this scenario means he won’t be instantly slotted in as a go-to guy like he otherwise would in a different receiving room (like, say, Washington’s a year or two ago).
Other than that, he’s been mentioned repeatedly in coaches’ and players’ virtual interviews this fall along with the guy we’re about to talk about:
Cade Otton says the true freshmen WRs — Sawyer Racanelli, Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan — are "balling out and making plays."— Christian Caple (@ChristianCaple) October 13, 2020
Add RB Sean McGrew to the list of people who said freshmen WRs Rome Odunze and Jalen McMillan are standing out in camp.— Lauren Kirschman (@laurenkirschman) October 15, 2020
We’re mega-likely to see him on the field this year — it’s just a matter of how much the veteran four-stars stand in the way and if his relative skinniness (and I can’t emphasize enough how relative that term’s being used here) will make things a bit more tricky for McMillan to make an impact instantly.
But this is all probably moot and he’ll probably kick ass very soon.
Kevin Thomson to Jalen McMillan. https://t.co/y5p20y3wwv— Christian Caple (@ChristianCaple) October 15, 2020
WR Rome Odunze
6’3” 205 lbs
Before full-padded practices had begun, Junior Adams mentioned Odunze as having looked quite good, quite often. Since fall camp’s started, he’s been mentioned multiple times by coaches and veteran players.
McMillan might’ve been more noteworthy in high school as far as speed and route-running, but that wasn’t by much, and Odunze’s size means he’s likely physically better suited to make an earlier impact.
I don’t like framing the true freshman receivers as “Rome vs. Jalen” (also, respect to Sawyer Racanelli who should be exciting down the line), because their skillsets are complementary and it doesn’t do either justice to present them as a one-or-the-other situation. In a year or two, expect to see both on the field together, Rome punching dudes in the throat and Jalen speeding by them. Thunder and lightning, if you will.
But even that binary feels inaccurate, because McMillan’s more physical than he looks while Odunze is faster than he looks.
Why I include Odunze here along with McMillan is simply that his strength and size give him an advantage in regards to both durability and on-field play. And while these traits should allow him to compete against college defensive backs man-to-man sooner rather than later, his route-running against zone coverage is also surprisingly smart; it seems like often, physically dominant players prefer to just be brutes instead of calculating, but Odunze appears surprisingly cerebral in his ability to find the soft spot of a zone. He’s also faster and quicker than any guy his size has the right to be (and yes, fast and quick are different); his straight line speed is almost as good as McMillan with a 4.55 40, and his shuttle is 4.00 seconds.
Furthermore, his physical strength and vision means he’s also a candidate to have a lot of yards after the catch, something Dawg fans haven’t seen a lot of the last few years. Adding to that is his above-average ability for a big receiver when it comes to quick feet and change of direction in space. Were Odunze, Puka, and Otton to be lined up on the same plays, there’d be potential for a lot of physical dominance to both make contested catches and get extra yards afterwards.
Elijah Molden points to WRs Austin Osborne and Rome Odunze as two offensive players standing out so far in camp.— Lauren Kirschman (@laurenkirschman) October 11, 2020
“Rome (Odunze) has made a lot of plays so far. It's pretty cool to see true freshmen come in here and they don't bat an eye, they don't flinch”— Bow Down to Death Row (@BowDownDeathRow) October 5, 2020
I want to see Rome play this season so bad https://t.co/ISPTmx7PIH
Also, his blocking highlights are fun.
QB Ethan Garbers
6’3” 215 lbs
Obviously as a quarterback, were Garbers to win the starting job — something where the odds are against him but it’s not completely out of the question — he’d be THE impact true freshman, full stop, the end, period. We’ve already gone over 2,300 words here, so it feels redundant to write more about how that’d be the case.
Who will be Washington’s most impactful true freshman?
This poll is closed
OLB Sav’ell Smalls
C Myles Murao
TE Mark Redman
WR Jalen McMillan
WR Rome Odunze
QB Ethan Garbers
Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.