Washington might be on verge of stardom

semerson@macon.comSeptember 30, 2011 

ATHENS -- The scar is still there. It measures almost 6 inches, in the middle of Cornelius Washington’s muscle-laden left arm.

It happened when he was a junior in high school, already the recipient of a football scholarship offer to Georgia. It may have derailed that season, but it didn’t stop the hype or stop the trash talk from opposing teams about his lofty status.

“It’ll get in your head a little bit,” Washington said. “Especially if you bust a play. They’re like, ‘Georgia?’ ”

He can laugh about it now. Finally, it appears Washington is on the verge of fulfilling his immense promise.

Now a junior in college, the outside linebacker is coming off a game at Mississippi in which he recorded his first sack of the season and shared in another. He admitted it was a great moment -- “like the first time again” -- after nothing much to show for his first three games this season, despite what coaches said were solid games.

“I told him, ‘Keep coming, keep coming, because eventually the production will come,’ ” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “He’s played by far the best that he has since I’ve been here.”

Grantham saw pass-rush abilities in Washington, which is why he moved him from his spot last year, Sam (strongisde) linebacker, to Will (weakside) linebacker. Justin Houston occupied that Will linebacker position last year and led the SEC with 10 regular-season sacks.

“He’s more in the lines of Justin, than say a Chase Vasser or a drop-back linebacker kind of guy,” Grantham said, mentioning Washington’s backup.

Washington’s emergence has given the team a pair of producing outside linebackers. Jarvis Jones, the transfer from Southern California, has been as good as expected in the Sam linebacker spot, which is more of an all-field role.

And Washington’s emergence could also be due to a push from a new player to the team. Freshman Ray Drew was expected to play a large role and was a five-star recruit, more highly rated even than Washington was four years ago. Drew and Washington were due to compete at the Will spot.

But once the season started, it hasn’t been a competition. This week, Washington was asked if, like nose tackle Kwame Geathers with recruit John Jenkins, the hype over Drew motivated him.

Washington smiled, laughed and thought over his answer.

“You’re trying to put me in a spot here,” he said. “Well, Ray’s a good player. But I kind of have that confidence. I know what to do, I know what’s going on, and I’m a tough player. I’m not just gonna give it up easily. If he earns it, he can have it. But he’s gotta earn it, and I’m gonna be in the way every step of the way. It’s not gonna be easily done.”

Washington is used to the competition. Last year, he rotated with then-senior Darryl Gamble, who like Houston is now in the NFL. Washington may have that chance eventually, too, which is a far cry from being the player who had yet to fulfill his potential.

Christian Robinson, a junior inside linebacker, shares a major and a lot of classes with Washington. He said he has noticed a different level of excitement in Washington this year and thinks Washington was bothered by the talk that he hadn’t lived up to the hype yet.

“I think it did bother him. He’s a competitive guy,” Robinson said. “He doesn’t like people getting in his ear and talking like that. But he’s stayed calm and he’s reminded himself, ‘What I’m doing matters.’ … He’s really put in the time and effort, and I really believe it’s him perfecting his craft and studying.”

Richt offered Washington a scholarship before his junior year of high school, based largely on his frame and athletic abilities. The player now stands 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds. But Washington still had to develop as a player.

“That’s a problem, too,” Richt said. “You get guys that are ranked a certain way, and they are in their class and their own right very talented guys. But they all have to learn how to play college football. Some of them have gotta get bigger and stronger. Some of them might run into a position that’s loaded up pretty good with some veterans.”

That was the case when Washington first arrived on campus, and even last year. But now the key pass-rushing role is his for as long as he can show he deserves it.

“Once a guy gets a taste of putting some QBs on the ground, he gets hungry for more,” Richt said. “So I’m hoping it’ll be that way for him and it’ll become contagious for the team too.”

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