'He thrives on those moments.' Get to know Bears rookie WR Rome Odunze.

Dan Wiederer, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Football

CHICAGO — For 52 minutes after making quarterback Caleb Williams the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles waited.

He waited with eagerness. He waited with anxiety. He waited for the opportunity to make his grandest draft dream come true. Specifically, Poles waited for Rome Odunze, the talented, intelligent and enthusiastic wide receiver from Washington.

Poles had a vision of pairing Odunze with Williams as catalysts to the Bears’ championship pursuit. He felt strongly that Odunze was the most complete receiver in the draft and the second-best prospect overall — behind Williams. But Poles had no guarantees Odunze would be on the board when the Bears picked for the second time in the first round at No. 9.

He grew most tense when the New York Giants went on the clock at No. 6 but breathed a huge sigh of relief when they grabbed LSU’s Malik Nabers as their preferred receiver. At 8:13 p.m., Poles’ window of opportunity opened. He picked Odunze and gave Bears fans an opening to imagine what a new-look passing attack might become for years to come.

JaMarcus Shephard understands why Poles and the Bears were so excited to unite with Odunze. Having served as the wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator at Washington for Odunze’s final two college seasons, Shephard is well aware of Odunze’s big-play ability and strive-big mentality.

Shephard, now at Alabama as wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator, spoke to the Chicago Tribune recently to offer his assessment of Odunze. Here is that interview, edited for clarity.

— How would you paint the picture of what the Bears are getting in Odunze? And what will be your lasting impression of coaching him?

It’s just the human being that he is. I mean, Rome is a great player but he’s an even better person. He’s going to be the person who’s going to stay and sign every autograph at the end (of practice). He’s going to treat every person that’s in his presence as if they’re the only person on earth. He just has an uncanny ability to relate to every person he meets. So it’s the human being that he is that I’m going to miss more than anything else.

— It’s notable when you meet him that he has a natural connective charisma. How did you feel that when you got to Washington and met him for the first time?

No doubt, that’s there. But he also has a business mindset and very much wants to be business-oriented in terms of ensuring that he has the type of success that he believes he’s capable of. So I respect that piece of it with him as well.

— What’s an example of something that left an impression on you about his work ethic and drive?

Just his ability to learn. That really resonated early on. He’s the type of kid where, however you need to coach him and however you need to give him the information for him to absorb it, it really doesn’t matter. He’ll find a way to ensure that he’s prepared by making sure that he’s doing the extra work.

He’s staying late. He’s coming into your office and trying to seek additional information. He’s just about doing everything in his power to make sure he can be available to you to be coached. And I noticed that with him right away.

— His football IQ came up repeatedly throughout the predraft process. How would you describe his feel and understanding for the game?

It’s as high level as anybody I’ve ever coached. The young man truly understands. It was to a point where I needed to find ways to continuously challenge him during the meetings in order to ensure that I was keeping his attention. Obviously he is a professional so he was always going to pay attention, but I wanted to him to be fully engaged in those meetings.

So he was learning about the D-line and techniques of the D-line. He was learning about the different pressures and really, truly understanding exactly what the quarterback is reading on play concepts. So I knew for Rome going into those predraft meetings that he was going to crush that piece of the interview process.

— DJ Moore said Rome’s speed was notable to him — that it’s deceptive in a guy as tall and big and long as he is to also have those burners. How do you describe that combination of size and speed?

At one point I told him he didn’t create enough separation. And he’d say, “Coach, I’m faster than them.” I even had it written on my board at one time — I still have a picture of it — what he said he was going to run in the 40(-yard dash) versus what I thought he was going to run. Of course, me being a coach, I was going to make it a little bit worse than what he thought he was going to run. But the guy just has this quiet confidence about himself.

At times I would call him “Rome the Philosopher” versus “Rome the Warrior.” But at times this warrior mentality would come out, just in how he talked and led his teammates. Then at other times it would be this philosophical approach to how he led and approached his teammates.

I knew the size and speed aspect of it was also going to come. He was deceptively faster than a lot of guys on the field who we were going against. But he’s also big enough that he can bully you at the point of attack. And as he felt NFL scouts starting to say, “Hey, he wasn’t creating enough separation. He needs to find a way to catch more 50-50 balls. We’re getting (our receivers) too open,” he realized that was going to have to become a part of his game to be a high-level receiver. And he strengthened that.

— When you talk about “Rome the Philosopher,” can you elaborate about how that shows up?

Rome is an ultimate leader. He is one of those people where, when he walks into the GM’s office, when he walks into the CEO of a company’s office, he’s going to really be able to talk and speak to them in a way where they’re going to feel like he’s on the same level that they’re on. But also his teammates will feel that way. So he has this philosophical, make-you-think approach to how he leads people.


But then there are moments where this animalistic, tough guy comes out of nowhere. And you’re like, “Hey, hold up, you’re not allowed to be a tough guy like that. You’re supposed to be this reserved, calm, cool, collected customer. Then all of a sudden you’re out here ready to rip someone’s head off.”

But that’s the cool part about Rome. He knew when he had to be philosophical in his approach with his teammates but also when he needed to have that brute force to lead them into the position where we were going to the national championship game.

— He talked about the game-winning touchdown catch he made against Oregon in October as his favorite clutch play of the year. What do you remember about the play and his hunger for those moments?

The ball wasn’t even supposed to go to him on that play. He was back side in that concept. We were in a three-by-one (receiver set) to the field (side) and he was the single receiver to the back side. And honestly, we as a staff watched as the quarterback (Michael Penix) let them know, “Hey, I want us to run this instead.” For all of us, it was like, “Great call! I’m glad that’s what the call was going to be.” Because we’d rather put it in Rome’s hands at that time, in that moment, and see what would happen. And there was never a doubt from us at all that he would make the play.

But one of my favorite plays — obviously Rome made a lot of spectacular plays this season — I loved the one in the cold rain against Oregon State where we needed a first down late in the game to seal the win. Back-shoulder throw, same kind of play concept. Caught it and then he got up and waved goodbye to the crowd.

Obviously he thrives on those moments. Because every time he makes a big play, it’s almost iconic. So I would keep putting him in those situations. That’s all I know.

— I’m going to give you a third play because it speaks to exactly what you’re talking about. Ryan Poles was at the Apple Cup game against Washington State in late November and said on that last drive of the game, the fourth-and-1 play from well inside your own territory was a moment for him.

The reverse? Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

— Ryan said that spoke to him that in that moment you guys wanted to do whatever you could to get the ball in his hands and then let him work. Fourth-and-1 and he gets 23 yards to propel a game-winning drive.

That’s the thing for me. And that’s why I’ve been putting my foot in my mouth at times, but it’s the truth in the way I feel. Rome was the best receiver in college football this past year. There’s no doubt about it. He made the biggest plays in the biggest moments of the big games. That’s why he was the best. But, hey, everybody has their opinion. None of that matters anymore. Now it’s time for him to go be his best for the Chicago Bears.

— What did it say for you guys to call that play in that moment given what was on the line?

There was never a doubt for any of us. Ball’s going to Rome? We’re all good. Just find ways to get the ball to Rome. It was never a problem. I mean, don’t get me wrong. We had other receivers who were phenomenal players. It was just when we knew it was going to Rome, we never had a second thought as to what was going to happen. And he was going to find a way to make it happen.

— Rome talked on draft night about how the journey with a team that got all the way to the final game of last season was valuable for him to see what it took collectively to get there. What do you think he can take away from that experience to help perform something similar in Chicago?

You think about a roster (at Washington) that had experienced some of the lowest of lows and going 4-8 (in 2021). You see the head coach no longer be a part of the staff and a brand-new regime come in and to build right away and not take a second to wait. I think that’s what Rome will bring to the table in Chicago. He’s not going to be a patient individual. He’s going to be ready to do it right now.

And I think the city of Chicago and the whole fan base just needs to get behind them — 100%. I know our fan base at the University of Washington was behind us from Day 1. There were no fair-weather fans. They all just jumped on board and said, hey, these are the cards we were dealt. Let’s go battle it out with each other. So the fan base in Chicago should just jump on board and enjoy the ride.

— How valuable was it for Rome to have an opportunity to carry a team in the biggest moments of a college football season?

I honestly wish that on every player in the country to have that, to have that pressure put on you to be able to carry it. Because you find out what you’re really made of as a human being and as a young man. So there’s no doubt about it that’s going to aid him in helping carry this team.

Look, everybody knows there are always nicks and bruises and things of that nature when you get into the National Football League. But somebody has to step up in those big moments. And Rome stepped up. Through a punctured lung. Through various other things that went undisclosed. So he’s going step up and be that guy who will be available. The best ability is availability.

— Lastly, as both a football coach and a football fan, you must have some level of intrigue about the pairing of Rome and Caleb Williams. What intrigues you about those two coming together, not only skill set-wise but they also have the instant connection and an identical timeline for breaking in here?

I think it’ll be a cool story to write one day — just how they came in together and eventually became something special there together as well. But they still have a lot of work to do in order to get there. Neither one of them are finished products.

Everyone expects them to come in and flip the script right away. And they expect that too. However, even what you saw with (Odunze) and Mike Penix together at Washington, there was a level of comfortability that grew with them in Year 2 that was even that much better than Year 1. So hopefully (with Odunze and Williams) that connection can really spark early and give them a chance to highlight the city of Chicago within the next year or two.

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