College chemistry paying off for six QB-receiver duos in the NFL

ByNFL Nation reporters ESPN logo
Thursday, September 29, 2022

Pack your bags.

That was the message wide receiverJa'Marr Chasegot from Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow the morning of the 2021 NFL draft. During the 2019 season at LSU, Burrow and Chase formed one of college football's most potent combinations. When Chase got the text from Burrow on draft day, it indicated a reunion in Cincinnati might be his future.

"I don't know if that was a hint or not, but when I saw that text I said, 'OK, I'm ready,'" Chase said after the Bengals selected him with the fifth overall pick. The move paid off handsomely for Cincinnati. Chase had a record-setting year with81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns. Chase was named the NFL's top offensive rookie. The connection between Burrow and Chase helped push the Bengals to the brink of winning the franchise's first Super Bowl last season.

Burrow and Chase aren't the only quarterback-receiver combinations who went from being college teammates to linking up in the NFL. They will face two of their former college rivals when Cincinnati hosts the Miami Dolphinson Thursday night (8:15 p.m. ET, Amazon Prime Video).

One pick after the Bengals drafted Chase, Miami reunited Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle with his former college quarterbackTua Tagovailoa. They're two of six NFL teams that have reunited quarterbacks with their college receivers, hoping to mimic the spark teammates showed before they turned pro.

So far, the results seem to be paying off for Cincinnati, Miami and teams that made similar moves across the NFL.

QB Joe Burrow and WR Ja'Marr Chase

Stats together with LSU, 2018-19: 107 receptions, 2,093 yards, 23 TDs

Stats together with Bengals, 2021-22: 100 receptions, 1,641 yards, 15 TDs

The moment Chase realized Burrow was a special quarterback didn't happen on the field.

Ahead of the LSU Tigers' game against the Florida Gators in October 2019, Burrow approached Chase about watching film together. Burrow pointed out all the weaknesses he saw in the opposing defensive backs as they plotted an attack for the upcoming Saturday. Chase finished with seven catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-28 win.

The two were prolific members of one of the best college teams in recent history. LSU went undefeated and won the national championship that season. Burrow won the Heisman Trophy while Chase earned the Biletnikoff as the nation's top receiver, finishing with 1,780 yards and 20 touchdown receptions.

When Chase first arrived at LSU in 2018, the instructions from Burrow were simple but powerful.

"He was just telling me, 'Bro, if I see one-on-one, I'm going to throw it up to you,'" Chase recalled in August ahead of his second NFL season. "That right there let me know that he believes I'm a great receiver and that I can make plays. When he told me that, it's just my part to make the play and let him keep believing that I can do it."

That belief didn't waver when the pairing reunited in the pros. One year after the Bengals drafted Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, they selected Chase at No. 5. And again, it ended up being a special connection. Chase set Cincinnati's franchise record for most receiving yards in a single season and was named the Associated Press' Offensive Rookie of the Year.

That on-field connection was exemplified in a Week 17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs that clinched the AFC North and the Bengals' first playoff berth since 2015.

On a pivotal third-and-27, Burrow found Chase for a 30-yard completion down the right sideline. It worked for the same reason Burrow told him when they started playing together at LSU.

"Everybody knows the meme: 'Eff it, Ja'Marr's down there somewhere,'" Burrow said in his postgame news conference. "I'm gonna just throw it up to him and he's gonna make a play." -- Ben Baby

QB Kyler Murray and WR Marquise 'Hollywood' Brown

Stats together with Oklahoma, 2017-18: 77 receptions, 1,425 yards, 11 TDs

Stats together with Cardinals, 2022: 23 receptions, 249 yards, 1 TD

Before they became one of college football's most dynamic duos during the 2018 season, Murray and Brown forged their relationship behind closed doors in 2017 at the expense of one of college football's best teams.

While both were backups for the Oklahoma Sooners that season, they joined forces on the scout team. Over the course of the season, they built a bond, a friendship and a connection on the field that they're rekindling five years later.

The show they put on back then set the stage for 2018 and, again in, 2022.

"It was hell," former Oklahoma cornerback Jordan Thomas said. "It was almost like I'd rather play our starting offense versus our scout team."

Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury can see the comfort that Murray has with Brown.

"The flashes are there," Kingsbury said. "And as the season goes on, I expect it to be a pretty good combination."

From Kingsbury's experience, which includes college football, if a quarterback and receiver work in college, "it usually has a chance -- if they're talented enough -- to continue that chemistry on the next level."

It's safe to say Murray and Brown are that type of talented. Both were first-round picks in 2019.

Murray and Brown remained close after college, working out together during offseasons. In fact, they were throwing together when Brown got the call he was traded to the Cardinals in April.

"Just knowing him on a personal level, just knowing the person like, who they really are, just helps you on the field because I know how he thinks, I know how he's wired, he knows how I'm wired, and sometimes it clicks for people and sometimes it doesn't," Brown said.

"With me and Kyler, I think it clicked know from Day 1 and then it's just something that we just got."

Brown had a career-high 14 catches in just his third game with Murray for 140 yards, the second most of his career. -- Josh Weinfuss

QB Jalen Hurts and WR DeVonta Smith

Stats together with Alabama, 2018: 7 receptions, 125 yards, 1 TD

Stats together with Eagles, 2021-22: 79 receptions, 1,165 yards, 6 TDs

Hurts and Smith are both electric on the field, but it's their unspectacular lifestyles off of it that helped forge their initial bond.

Hurts was Smith's host when Smith took his visit to the Alabama Crimson Tide's campus. Asked what they did together outside of the obligatory functions, Smith said: "We didn't do nothing. I went back to my hotel room. We didn't hang out or nothing like that. That's just the type of guys we are. We don't want to be out. We just want to keep to ourselves."

It's all about business for both of them. When one wanted to meet up to get extra reps in, the other was always game. It became clear pretty quickly that they were like-minded when it came to their serious approach to their crafts.

"I always kind of draw towards a guy that's willing to put the work in because I know I'm going to put the work in," Hurts said. "I was able to build a relationship with DeVonta just because he was willing to work. We didn't like to party much or do too much -- we'd hang out with our friends and do things like that -- but we were about the grind. There's a few guys I remember being willing to do that: Minkah Fitzpatrick being one of them, DeVonta being one of them. We were able to build a great relationship just through our work ethic, and kind of tracked ourselves back here to Philly."

Hurts and Smith were teammates at Alabama during Smith's freshman and sophomore years (2017-18), when Smith was sharing the field with other standouts like Calvin Ridley, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III. Smith and Hurts connected for 12 receptions, 207 yards and two touchdowns during their time together in Tuscaloosa before Hurts transferred to Oklahoma.

When Smith first arrived to the Eagles practice facility in April 2021 after being selected with the 10th overall pick in the draft, Hurts was there to greet him, just like he did at Tuscaloosa. This time around they went a little wild and headed down the street to take in a Sixers game before calling it a night. -- Tim McManus

QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne

Stats together with Clemson, 2018-20: 71 receptions, 811 yards, 7 TDs

Stats together with Jaguars, 2022: 8 receptions, 81 yards, 0 TDs

Lawrence and Etienne have been teammates for five years, so naturally they've become close.

And as friends do, they share things. Memories. Maybe a few secrets. And hand towels.

It's easier to let Etienne explain:

"So he wears his towel in the front and I wear my towel in the back," he said. "After the first quarter my towel was drenched so I can't wipe [my hands] on my towel. He keeps his towel fresh and clean because he's got to keep his hands dry. So he's right here. So I just use his."

That started when Lawrence arrived at Clemson in 2018 (Etienne got there in 2017). At any moment during a game or a practice Etienne could reach over during the huddle and clean his hands on Lawrence's towel. It has become an inside joke between the two that carried over into the NFL when the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted the pair in the first round in 2021. Etienne missed his first NFL season with aa Lisfranc injury.

South Florida coach Jeff Scott, who was Clemson's co-offensive coordinator from 2015-19, said it's not surprising that Lawrence and Etienne got along so well there and continue to do so now because they are similar people.

"High character [and] they love football," Scott said. "Not a lot of distractions off the field. They're very focused and really are all about the right thing. You saw them together a lot on the field, and off the field and they always had great communication.

"It was a very kind of professional [relationship] among them even at the college level. It was just a little bit of a higher level of maturity from them than maybe most guys at that point in their college career."

Etienne was a little more flashy, however, wearing his towel out of the back of his pants for a little style. So Lawrence had to unwittingly help keep his hands dry. "It doesn't bother me," Lawrence said. "I just have to switch out my towel more often than normal." -- Michael DiRocco

QB Derek Carr and WR Davante Adams

Stats together with Fresno State, 2012-13: 233 receptions, 3,037 yards, 39 TDs

Stats together with Raiders, 2021: 17 receptions, 189 yards, 3 TDs

It was after the first four routes Carr saw Adams run at Fresno State when the quarterback made a beeline to then-Fresno State Bulldogs coach Pat Hill.

"Why are we redshirting him?" Carr asked Hill of the new guy in 2011. "What are we doing?"

Adams, Carr said, might have been a better basketball player coming out of high school, yet he was already better than any other receiver on the Bulldogs' roster. The two became fast friends in California's Central Valley and as their chemistry grew for Fresno State, so, too, did their success. In 2013, when Carr passed for more than 5,000 yards, Adams caught 24 of his 50 touchdown passes. Carr was drafted 36th overall by the Raiders in 2014 and Adams went 17 picks later to the Green Bay Packers.

"We were working out together for the first six years of our NFL career anyway because we lived right down the street from each other once I moved up to Danville [California]," Adams said in training camp. "So, we were probably throwing three times a week for five, six years. Had about a two-year gap when the [Raiders] moved [to Las Vegas from Oakland], but basically picked up where we left off."

And then some. After the megatrade that landed Adams in Las Vegas in March, they showed their chemistry was real. In Week 1 of the 2022 season, their first game as NFL teammates, Carr targeted Adams 17 times and Adams had 10 catches for 141 yards and a TD.

"We both are so committed and obsessive over our craft to where ... I messed something up at the end of practice, just a subtle thing, and we go back out there after," Adams added. "I just want to feel that and do it because that's the way we did it before. Anytime if he didn't like a ball he threw in a period, he had me go stand in the spot that I would have been catching the ball and then he'll fire it until he liked how he threw it, which is usually one more pass.

"But when you got two dudes that have worked together and already built up a lot of camaraderie and have a close friendship, I feel like that makes it so much easier kind of getting back and jelling the way you were before."

Yes, their lockers are next to each other in the Raiders facility. --Paul Gutierrez

QB Tua Tagovailoa and WR Jaylen Waddle

Stats together with Alabama, 2018-19: 48 receptions, 798 yards, 7 TDs

Stats together with Dolphins, 2021-22: 91 receptions, 1,100 yards, 9 TDs

Tagovailoa and Waddle spent two seasons together at Alabama, winning a national championship game and losing in another.

Their connection might not have been as prolific as the other duos on this list, but that didn't stop the Dolphins from reuniting the former college teammates .

Neither was known for being particularly vocal, but Tagovailoa said he noticed a growth in Waddle during the time between their final game at Alabama on Nov. 16, 2019, and their first with the Dolphins on Sept. 12, 2021.

"His biggest improvement is his communication," Tagovailoa said last season. "In college, Jaylen would speak up here and there, but you really see him now. You come to the sideline after a series and he's out there telling me, 'Hey, this is why I'm running this route. I'm running it because of this and that, and this is where I'm expecting the ball.' He's telling me 'do this.'

"And it's not asking -- it's more so telling."

Miami's idea to reunite them in the NFL paid off immediately. Waddle was the team's leading receiver last season, setting an NFL rookie record for receptions with 104 on a team-high 140 targets. And they've picked up where they left off, particularly during an explosive win over the Ravens in Week 2 as both players set career highs for yards and touchdowns.

They generally like to downplay their success in the NFL having much to do with their relationship at Alabama, and that's their prerogative. But Tagovailoa trusts Waddle implicitly, and that trust goes both ways.

During their game-winning drive against the Ravens, Waddle said Tagovailoa addressed the huddle, telling his teammates "it's either us or them right now."

"That got me going, man," Waddle said after the game.

Immediately after Tagovailoa's message to the team, he and Waddle connected for the game-winning touchdown. -- Marcel Louis-Jacques

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