ATHENS -- The worst part is obvious. The early-morning arrest. Having to face his family. Staying away from the news, knowing his name was all over it.
After all that, the most difficult thing that Cornelius Washington faced during the past few weeks was just not playing. That’s why this Saturday’s game, so important to all of the Georgia football program, might mean just a little bit more to him.
“When you know you can help, that’s the worst part of it,” Washington said, recalling the past two games. “Just sitting at home while your team and the rest of your guys, all your friends, are out battling, it’s kind of rough to deal with.”
Everything was going right for Washington before that early-morning arrest, for DUI and speeding. The junior outside linebacker had just recorded two sacks in a win over Mississippi State, a week after getting 1.5 sacks at Mississippi. He was finally living up to his immense promise, and his coaches were praising his all-around performance, not just the sacks.
The good news for Washington is his suspension didn’t end up costing the team. The Bulldogs managed wins at Tennessee and Vanderbilt, with highly touted freshman Ray Drew filling in his spot ably.
The better news for Washington is the suspension didn’t cost him his spot. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said he would slide right back into his former role.
“Cornelius is there. He’s fine,” Grantham said.
The key now is whether Washington will be able to pick up where he left off, or whether the suspension came at just the worst time, derailing his momentum.
Washington, speaking candidly, admitted he might be a bit rusty for the first series or so. But he thinks he’ll be OK, and his team needs it: A win over Florida will go a long way toward potentially winning the SEC East.
And for Washington, a good performance in a victory will go a long way toward making the events of three weeks ago a small footnote in his career.
“It’s a thing of the past, and I’m gonna make sure to make it a thing of the past, and I’ll make sure that it stays in the past,” Washington said. “It’s not a thing that usually happens, and especially to me. So I’m not gonna dwell on it. I’m just gonna move forward and shoot for bigger and better things.”
Head coach Mark Richt has had to deal with his share of player arrests during the past few years. But Richt saw immediate contrition in Washington, who not only apologized to his teammates on the Monday after the arrest but was also forthright in a private conversation with a counselor.
“He was sick. He was just sick that he had made that mistake. But he seemed to be most hurt about how he let his teammates down, how he let his coaches down, how he let Georgia down. That was a good sign for me,” Richt said. “And the other thing is he never tried to make up some kind of excuse. He didn’t try to say, ‘I didn’t do this, I didn’t do that.’
“He owned up to it, he knew he was wrong. He knew how he hurt everybody, and he took his discipline like a man. Guys make mistakes. I hate it when they make mistakes. But I thought he handled it as well as you could handle it.”
Grantham also praised the way Washington handled his two weeks off. He said Washington gave Drew advice and went as hard in positional drills as he had when he was playing.
But now the defense needs Washington, who might be the team’s best pass rusher. The Bulldogs are hoping to exploit the fact that Florida quarterback John Brantley is coming off a leg injury, and Richt pointed out Washington was allowing the team to squeeze the pocket without blitzing.
“That’s what Cornelius was doing there, especially the last couple games there before his suspension,” Richt said. “I hope he comes back with the same kind of energy. He was playing harder and faster than he was in his career those past few games. I’m very proud of that. And I hope he gets back to doing that.”
Washington is promising to try hard to do that.
“I just want to get out and play, man. It’s been too long,” he said. “It’s been almost a month since I’ve been out on the field, since I got game action. It’s long overdue. I’m just ready to get out there and play.”