Back in action
The Tigers' Derrick Washington takes one for the team
One of running back Derrick Washington's biggest strengths is his ability to look down the field and see blocking lanes set up. With a chance of rain and wind for Thursday's Nebraska game, Washington's skill will play an even more important role in the offense. Photo by Shane Epping.
Running back is often considered one of the more glamorous positions in football. The fans know who the running backs are, and because the position’s stats are comparatively simple, the good running backs are easy to pick out. Mizzou’s Derrick Washington, whose chiseled features are adorned with an omnipresent smile, fits the bill.
The type of work it takes to achieve such a status is far from glamorous. Running backs face a high level of physical and mental involvement on every play and the chance of a beating on every down.
Washington shows Mizzou Wire what it takes to be a Tigers running back.
Taking the lead
From the moment he set foot on the field this spring, Washington was the unquestioned leader in his position group. He employs constant mental awareness to make sure he’s leading by example both on and off the field as the oldest and most experienced player.
“The younger guys are looking up to him, and I’ve seen a change in the way he goes about his business now,” team captain Sean Weatherspoon says. “He’s doing a great job of leading those guys and bringing them along.”
One of those players is freshman Kendial Lawrence. The two were roommates in the hotel before Mizzou’s home opener, and Washington recognized what he saw in the rookie’s eyes.
“I could tell he was kind of nervous during the practices and walkthrough,” Washington says. “I told him, ‘It’s going to be crazy; just be calm and do what you do.’”
In that game Washington racked up 23 carries for 120 yards and a touchdown. Lawrence had seven for 49 yards, and, if not for a holding penalty, would have scored a touchdown as well.
“I’m still learning from him and his moves,” Lawrence says. “I’m just learning each time I see him.”
Derrick Washington cuts through a hole opened by the offensive linemen. Photo by Nicholas Benner.
The workweek for the Tigers begins each Tuesday with intense preparation and focus on the next opponent. Washington says the toughest thing about football for him is the mental part of the game. Since it’s easy to lose focus, he’s working harder than ever before to be prepared in all aspects of his game.
“I’ve been watching film a lot more recently,” Washington says, listing off ways he’s trying to improve. “I didn’t realize how much I really need it.”
That extra work already has paid dividends. Last year Washington was named to the All-Big 12 second team, and he’s well on his way to posting similar numbers again this season. From a defensive standpoint, Washington’s weekly work has shaped him into someone tough to figure out.
“He can line up at receiver. He can make some plays on the perimeter. He has great hands, and he’s also a powerful runner when he has to be,” Weatherspoon says. “Really the one thing that sticks in my mind with his solid running is his vision. He does a great job of seeing guys down the field and using his hips to make guys miss.”
That vision manifests itself on one of Washington’s favorite plays to run: the counter. Practiced many times throughout the week, the play depends completely on how the running back is reading the defense in front of him.
The counter starts when the ball is hiked and the guard and tackle from the opposite side pull to the side where the run is going. Usually Washington will start to see whether he’s going inside or outside at that point. From there, he has to read the defensive end.
“If [the end] runs down, the guard’s going to block him and I’m going outside and following the tackle. If not, I’m going up inside,” Washington explains. “Sometimes I try to set up the blocker so I can fake like I’m going outside and come back inside. I use my vision and have all my blockers, so hopefully something’s wide open.”
A good run
Capping a week of practice and preparation, gameday rolls around. As an experienced runner in the backfield, Washington has been a calming presence for first-year starter Blaine Gabbert at quarterback.
“Once he breaks a few big runs, gets a few first downs, our whole offense feels more comfortable,” Gabbert says. “They really can’t drop everyone into coverage if we’re going to run the football because it means there are three or four guys in the box and we have them outnumbered.”
A strong running game helps not only the offense but also the defense. Instead of trying to make stops against an opponent, Mizzou’s defense gets the chance to take a breather and to better scheme.
“Don’t go scoring the touchdown; just get enough for what we need,” Weatherspoon jokes. “We’re over on the sideline getting fresh, so I would love to tell Derrick to keep running and get eight yards a pop every time he gets it. Don’t get too much, though.”
Once the game is over, there’s no big party waiting for Washington’s arrival. Instead, he drags his aching body home and relaxes with his parents before calling it an early evening. The pain is a good hurt, though; Washington knows he’s worked hard.
“It’s crazy; it’s tough, but at the same time I love it,” Washington says. “This is football, so I play the game and everything that comes with it. I hate being sore, and I hate aching, but, hey, it’s a part of the game, so I love it. I start feeling better on Mondays, and then it all starts again.”