Florida State RB Leon Washington averaged 6.9 yards per carry as a junior while handling the largest share of Florida State's running attack
(The 2006 NFL Draft is scheduled to take place on the weekend of April 29-30, during which nearly 300 college standouts will enter into the professional ranks. During the months of March and April, Buccaneers.com will run a series of features on these NFL hopefuls, taking a closer look at some of the names you'll be hearing on draft weekend. There is no correlation between the players chosen for these features and the Buccaneers' draft plans, and any mentions of draft status or scouting reports are from outside sources. Our next feature: Florida State running back Leon Washington.)
Playing at Florida State, as Leon Washington did, means a network of former Seminoles and current NFL players who can offer advice when it's your turn to make the leap to the professional ranks. Washington is a running back, and there is never a shortage of FSU backs in the NFL; currently, he could seek the counsel of Atlanta's Warrick Dunn, Jacksonville's Greg Jones, Oakland's Zack Crockett or Miami's Travis Minor. As a kid, Washington even went to a football camp run in part by former Green Bay Packer star Edgar Bennett, another Seminole.
Of course, playing at Florida State, particularly at running back, often means competing for playing time with the same type of NFL-caliber backs. Washington, in fact, split carries with Jones in 2003, and Lorenzo Booker made it a three-way rotation (Washington finished second on the team with 387 yards on 74 carries). As a senior last year, Washington was still rotating with Booker, which meant he recorded "only" 430 yards on 97 carries despite starting 10 games. Still, over his four seasons in Garnet and Gold he managed to become just the 10th player in school history to rush for over 2,000 yards.
"At Florida State, you compete because you get good athletes in the school every year," said Washington, who called Booker his best friend. "Being a competitor, you want to get the ball every down. But that's the nature of the game."
Well, the nature of the draft is to take every possible piece of information into account when trying to determine a prospect's value. And Washington's forced time-sharing is one of those pieces of information that NFL teams must deal with in their evaluations…or perhaps it's better to say that it constitutes a missing piece of information. The question is, will Washington have to share once he hits the professional level, or is he good enough to be an every-down back?
Well, there is this: As a junior, he was given a career-high 138 carries and he turned them into 951 yards, averaging a remarkable 6.9 yards per tote. He also caught 24 passes for 160 yards that season and was the MVP in the Gator Bowl at the end of the year. Washington may have bought into the team focus as a Seminole, but he, for one, believes he could be the focal point of an offense in the NFL.
That being said, the team that chooses Washington in the upcoming draft – and he's projected to go anywhere from the second to the fourth round – should know that he's willing to fill any role.
"I think I've showed I can run between the tackles and catch the ball pretty well and definitely return kicks pretty well. Wherever a team needs me to play, I'll definitely do that. I want to prove I'm an every-down back, also."
Of course, Washington's depressed playing time wasn't only a matter of splitting time with other future NFLers. He got into the starting lineup late in his freshmen season but then missed four games due to a dislocated shoulder as a sophomore, ceding much of the playing time to Jones. Though his junior season was his strongest, he did miss two games due to another shoulder injury. As such, NFL teams have to figure out if durability is an issue for the 5-8, 202-pound power runner.
"I got banged up in college, but I always bounced back from it," Washington pointed out. "I always came back and proved that I could come back from injury. That's the game of football and things like that are going to happen. The thing is if you bounce back and improve on that. I think I did that."
That's a valid point, but the obvious question, in assessing Washington's future in the NFL, is how likely he is to run into additional injuries. Washington runs low and has a strong lower body, and he uses those abilities to play a power-type game, though he also has an additional burst if he gets through the hole. However, some might wonder if his size makes that type of power attack an issue. Jones points out that he wouldn't be the first 5-8, 200-pound back to handle a heavy load in the NFL.
"I've been getting that my whole entire life," he said. "Too small, too little to do this, too little to do that. If you look at NFL history, guys like Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, all those guys were the standard height for running backs. It's added motivation, that's all."
Add Cadillac Williams to that list. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2005 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year measures in at 5-11, 217 and was also considered small coming out of Auburn a year ago. The Bucs felt Williams was big enough to handle a full-time, between-the-tackles role, and his rookie season vindicated that belief. Jones would like to chart a similar course, but he knows he might first be slotted into a different role.
"Most teams want me to come in and contribute right away on special teams, returning kicks; some teams have me being a third-down back," said Washington, who got a feel for some teams' takes on him at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. "I don't have a problem with that. I'm just glad to be [at the Combine] and have a chance to compete with the other great running backs and have a chance to showcase my talent."
Washington tapped into that Seminoles-in-the-pros pipeline before the Combine, talking to Dunn and Jones about what he could expect. Those former FSU stars advised Washington to approach the pre-draft run-around like a business, knowing that it would eventually lead to a job doing what he loves to do. And perhaps he eventually will be one of the great former Seminoles who will be able to offer advice to the next wave of pros-in-the-making.
In one way, in fact, Washington has already distinguished himself amidst FSU's rich football history. He is the only player in the Bobby Bowden era to score touchdowns in five different ways, via running, passing, punt return, kickoff return and fumble recovery.
"I wasn't even aware of that until this season," said Washington. "You look at the kind of athletes who have come through there, to have a chance to do that definitely speaks volumes on what I have contributed to college football and Florida State."