Jets' Washington Goes Through Second Year Pains
HEMPSTEAD, NY- When collegiate football stars ponder what a potential future in the NFL entails, they envision an opulent atmosphere along with a glamorous lifestyle befitting that of an elite athlete.
Unless that player turns out to be a high first-round draft pick with the security of an eight-figure guaranteed contract, that image takes a hit once their first pre-season is completed. Rigorous training both on and off the field comprise most of the day, while most rookies usually have the added anxiety of anticipating the fervency of a regular season game.
Three days before the Jets kicked-off the 2006 season against the Titans, Leon Washington didn't have many of the rookie mannerisms that usually accompany a fourth-round pick that had to fight for a roster spot.
This time last year, Washington was gearing up for his senior season at Florida State, with classes and a BCS series appearance on his mind. Thirteen games and 459 yards later, the running back was taken in the April draft, giving the Jets insurance in case Curtis Martin could not start the season.
Martin's career is indeed in jeopardy, as the future Hall of Fame running back is out until at least Week 7 with a bone-on-bone condition in his right knee. Though this could be the perfect outlet for Washington to make his mark on the league, the 5'9, 202-pound speedster played sparingly on special teams, returning two punts for 11 yards in a 23-16 victory against Tennessee.
In his second-to-last practice before he made his NFL debut Sunday, Washington sat in the small stool in front his locker, wrapping black tape around his black cleats, fortifying the feet that allowed him to rush for 2,041 yards in his college career.
The Jets named the six team captains the day before, and with eight rookies on the active roster, that type of leadership will be valuable for a team that has only 30 returning players from last year.
"Laveranues Coles, Justin Miller, pretty much the entire veteran running back corps," said Washington about who has imparted the most advice to him as game day approaches. "It's one of those things, [where] all the guys are helping each other out on the field. All the young guys are trying to take it in and soak it up. But only when you can truly experience it is actually going out there and doing it."
Eric Mangini, who himself is entering his rookie year as head coach, does not dole out praise lightly. But during his morning press conference, he made the play of the Jets' young players a point of emphasis, highlighting the impact of Washington in the process.
"I'm really happy with this group of rookies, and I can say positive things about every single guy, whether it be Leon - Leon to me, I was watching tape yesterday, and he was on the show team. And he finishes a run 30 yards down the field, he's got great ball security on the play, and that to me is how Leon's evolved," Mangini said. "He struggled early, but he has just worked at it, and he worked at it, and he worked at it."
Washington has been in an open competition with veterans Derrick Blaylock, Cedric Houston and Kevan Barlow for playing time. The Jets surrendered a fourth round pick to acquire Barlow from the 49ers, and Blaylock got the start in Week 1, though neither distinguished themselves. With so much uncertainty, it's possible the rookie could get a start if he improves as the season progresses.
One benefit from playing in a prestigious football school like FSU is that large venues and nationally televised games won't be completely new territory for Washington. The 24-year-old said his experience as a Seminole will negate some of the intimidation factor of playing on the road, though comparing a college atmosphere to the pros is not completely analogous.
"Having a chance to play in front of large crowds, it's definitely an advantage," Washington said. "It will be different, but it's an advantage, coming from a big school."
Though he may see limited time at the start of the season, FSU has a strong track record of producing running backs, like Warrick Dunn. Washington has already been in contact with some former Seminole teammates prior to his first game.
"Lorenzo Booker has called me and wished me good luck in the regular season," said Washington about the player who is currently the starting tailback entering his senior season at FSU. "I keep in contact with most of those guys."
He will have to leave the memories of collegiate success behind for him to help bolster a running back corps that struggled during a 4-12 season in 2005. Veteran guard Pete Kendall knows losing Martin and the consistent 1,000-yard seasons he produced will be tough to replace, though he expressed optimism that a strong candidate will emerge from the pool of available backs.
"We're going to go out there and do the things coach has asked us to do," Kendall said. "We have four capable backs, they all bring there own style and their own qualities to our offense."
Often overlooked in a rookie's transition to the professional ranks is the additional off-the-field workload. While the physical demands are greater in the NFL, time spent in positional meetings and in the film room with running backs coach Jimmy Raye is also a prerequisite for success at the top level.
"To me, that's the biggest adjustment," said Washington. "The physical part is big, but the mental part of the game has been my biggest adjustment. Players up here are so much smarter, and they're bigger, faster and stronger. That part of the game's been tough. The running backs meet together every now and then and get extra film work in."