Nov. 23, 2007
By Benton Strong
One came in as a running back, another as a defensive back. Two were recruited as pure receivers and another was a big, physical kid that transferred in from junior college. All five of them ended up as wide receivers. All are seniors now and all are sharing a dream.
"I came to the University of Washington to win," senior Anthony Russo says.
Russo also came to Washington hell-bent on being a tailback, but that did not work out for the senior from Lakewood, Wash. Talk to him about his career, however, and regrets are non-existent.
"People ask me if I could go back, would I change the place I went to college," says Russo. "And I wouldn't.
"We are so close, we call each other brothers. I have a son and they are all his uncles. It's not just the receivers either. Our whole class of 2003 is close and it's really something special."
Russo came out of Lakes High School as a tailback and wanted to stay at his position, but just like true freshman Curtis Shaw has done this season, Russo made the switch to wide out and it has paid dividends.
"[The change] was rough," he recalls. "What made it hard for me was that I didn't want to switch. I wanted to be a running back even though everyone told me that in college I would be a receiver. Curtis looks like he doesn't mind doing it. I eventually realized I had to do it and I decided I might as well be my best at it."
Russo wasn't the only member of the group to switch positions. Cody Ellis came in as a defensive back and spent two years there before becoming a big-play guy on the offensive side. His career has been marked by great, timely plays since he first lined up in the slot.
"It's been great," he said. "This is just a great bunch of guys and it's been so much fun playing with them."
The third of five senior receivers, Quintin Daniels, has missed significant time due to injury. He missed the entire 2005 season and part of 2004 after tearing an ACL, but still won the team's KING-TV Most Improved Player (offense) last season. He, along with Corey Williams, has been a quieter, but no less effective member of this group.
Then there was the new guy. Marcel Reece joined the team in 2006 and made an impact immediately. He leads the team with seven touchdown catches this year, and is the team's biggest target for quarterbacks Jake Locker and Carl Bonnell.
Together these five players make up what has been an extremely strong receiving core. There have been some young additions to the corps as the year has gone along, but this quintet of seniors figures to lead Washington into today's 100th Apple Cup with more experience than any other group.
Talk to the five of them and the memories just flow. Russo recounts Williams' catch in the 2003 Apple Cup. The 21-yard catch with 1:10 to play won the game for the Huskies. He streaked down the right sideline and had the ball slip past the defender and into his hands as he fell into the end zone. The play sent a sold-out Husky Stadium into a state of delirium.
Russo's list also includes several moments from his red-shirt freshman year in 2003. The Oregon game in 2003, when the Huskies walloped the Ducks 42-10 in front of more than 72,000 fans in Seattle is near the top. Also, a trip to Columbus, Ohio stands out to him.
"The best memories I had were my true freshman year," Russo said. "When we went to Ohio State, playing in front of 108,000 people and against a team that had just won a National Championship. We were ranked and they were ranked. Cody Pickett was a Heisman candidate and we had Reggie Williams too. That experience was exactly what I thought college football was going to be like and it was so exciting."
The memories don't stop as Ellis recounts his clutch grab against the Cougars in 2006, a play that helped Washington prevent WSU from amassing their first ever three-game win streak against the Dawgs. Ellis came across the middle and had a Bonnell pass thrown a little behind him. No matter, as the junior made a one-handed, spinning catch and raced 64 yards for a touchdown.
"The Apple Cup touchdown is definitely the highlight of my career," he says. "I had battled some injuries to come back, but I felt like I was behind the eight-ball in terms of all the other receivers. It felt good to finish the season strong."
Russo has been Mr. Big Play, seemingly out-running defenders and running under a deep pass every week. He leads the team in receiving yards and is second in touchdowns with five this year, piling up nine scores in his career. He and Reece have teamed up for over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns this year.
Reece has been nothing short of incredible since joining the group last season. His 69-yard touchdown catch in the Apple Cup a year ago put the Huskies ahead for good in the third quarter.
Of Reece's seven touchdowns this season, one against Boise State was nominated as the Pontiac Game-Changing performance of the week. He is second on the team in catches and yards and his 98- yard touchdown reception against Arizona is the longest play in Husky history.
And just last weekend three of these guys contributed to a huge win against Cal at Husky Stadium. Reece snatched a 12-yard touchdown pass out of the air on a fade pattern to closeout the first half. Russo tip-toed down the sideline for a 62-yard punt return in the fourth quarter, setting up a field goal. And Ellis hauled in a 51-yard heave down the sideline on third-and-24 to put the game out of reach for the Golden Bears.
With just two games left in their waning careers, the five receivers are hoping to create some final good memories. The memories built in college are lasting, as each and every one of them pointed out. And the relationships these players have built with each other have withstood the tests of time, competition, frustration and so much more.
"There's been a lot of competition," Reece says. "A lot of family competition. We fight a little bit, but mostly we have fun. Everybody wants to be the best in our receiving corps and that's what makes us good. Everything is a competition."
Russo mentioned that the addition of Reece was welcome. No group would be unhappy to get a playmaker of his caliber. His personality fit and the numbers he put up justified his time on the field.
Even the long list of quarterbacks that have taken snaps in their time has not deterred them. That group is larger than this one with players like Cody Pickett, Casey Paus, Isaiah Stanback, Johnny Durocher, Carl Bonnell and now Jake Locker. Guys like Williams have caught passes from just about every one of them and the adjustment hasn't been easy.
"You usually expect one guy or maybe two," Russo says. "I'm not sure how many there were, but there were a lot of them. It was hard to get used to just one guy, but I know one thing: they all throw hard. Jake, Carl, Isaiah, Casey, all of them threw hard. That was something I had to get used to after switching from running back."
But one thing they all do agree on now - Jake Locker is special. And that's coming from the guys who catch his passes and block for him downfield.
"Jake's a stud," Ellis says. "He is not your typical red-shirt freshman. He is mature and wise beyond his years. I haven't felt that the team has suffered at all because he's young."
One thing that Locker has allowed the team to do is put five wide receivers on the field, which means that all five could be out there at once this weekend against the Cougars.
"We are always begging for five receivers at the same time," Russo says. "Coach [Tim] Lappano said we were going to start doing that a lot and we loved that. Getting all the speed out on the field is fun. That's the good thing about the Pac-10 - there is a lot of offense. "
While the five didn't all come in together, they will exit as a group. Even with the struggles these guys have lived through, they don't regret their decision to become Huskies at all.
"Playing at Husky Stadium has been one of the greatest experiences of my life," Reece says. "I wouldn't trade it for the world. Not for any other school or any other conference."
While this group has played so well at Washington for so long, they may not enter the ranks of great Husky receivers like Jerome Pathon or Reggie Williams. They have been at the school through the largest rebuilding period it has ever had, and yet they have succeeded.
The names in college football, even though some may become immortalized, still change every five years or less. At Washington they will change, from Russo to Shaw, Reece to D'Andre Goodwin and Ellis to Alvin Logan. Washington will lose players and new ones will take their place, but legacies don't go anywhere and these five receivers have left their mark.
The Apple Cup is the game where legends are made. In 2003, former Husky receiver Reggie Williams responded to a question about whether he would have another big game in the Apple Cup by saying, "Do birds fl y?" But it was another Williams - Corey Williams - that made the game-winning catch that day. Expect nothing less in the 100th playing of the Apple Cup today.