No Huddle Series: Missouri WR L’Damien Washington

L'Damien Washington has the build and athleticism of A.J. Green, but he needs to go to finishing school to model this NFL star's game. Photo by Wade Rackley
L’Damien Washington has the build and athleticism of A.J. Green, but he needs to go to finishing school to model this NFL star’s game. Photo by Wade Rackley

The 2014 installment of this series begins with a rough around the edges receiver with the physical talents of A.J. Green and Justin Hunter.

The No Huddle Series is an on-field profile of prospects with the talent to develop into NFL contributors, but they are projected as talents with mid-to-late round draft grades. The 2014 installment of this series begins with Missouri’s L’Damien Washington, a rough around the edges receiver with the physical talents of A.J. Green and Justin Hunter. In the neighborhood of 6’5″, 204 lbs. and a stopwatch speed in the 40 around 4.35-4.4, there’s more to Washington than his Underwear Olympics portfolio that catches my attention.

Washington plays with reckless abandon, contributes on special teams, and despite gaps with his catching technique, he has good hands. If I’m a part of an organization that believes in targeting high-upside players that it can teach the skills to play the position – and knows without reservation that its coaches have the track record of developing said raw lumps of clay – Washington is exactly the type of player I’m targeting.

Athletic Grace And Focus

This touchdown on 1st and goal with 6:30 in the third quarter against Texas A&M is one of the best catches I have seen in college football this year.

It requires watching the replays to get a true feel for how good this catch on the corner fade is. The extension to high-point the ball and get a foot in bounds is impressive, but it’s garden-variety athleticism for a top prospect at the position. What I love is the concentration. Watch cornerback get his hand on the ball just as Washington begins to secure the ball after the initial catch at the high point of the target.

The receiver never loses focus despite the defender forcing Washington to fight to secure the ball. This is something Washington has to do while in mid-turn to shield the ball from his opponent. There are a lot of impressive facets of athleticism, focus, and toughness at play here. The full extension, the hand strength, the turn, the boundary awareness, and even the awareness to wrap the arm around the ball after his bound rebounds off the turf are all displays of skills integration that is difficult to teach. A coach might be able to teach a receiver to each of these things separately, but to layer them into one play and deal with a defender touching the ball at the most vulnerable point of the catch in the process of executing this play is impressive.

Washington’s willingness to lay out for the ball isn’t a one-time display. Here is a 3rd-and-six slant with 2:25 in the half where he faces a cornerback playing tight to the line of scrimmage.

The first thing I like about this play is the break on the route. Washington is not a refined route runner at this stage of his career. I often see him raise his pads too soon on releases, which tips off his break, and I don’t see an urgency to his releases that will force a defender to bail deep and set up shorter breaks.

Washington can learn these skills. The athleticism is there and this play reveals a hint of it. Watch him take two small steps up field and explode inside with a hard break. It’s a miniscule part of this quick route, but there’s intensity and precision to the move that he needs to incorporate into other routes.

As the ball arrives, Washington extends his body parallel to the ground and makes a diving catch towards the oncoming safety at the first down marker. Although he traps the ball to his body, his hands make contact with the ball first and he has no fear of contact from the defensive back over top. Once again, you can’t teach a willingness to put your body in harm’s way. It’s something Washington and Green have in common.

This 37-yard gain against man coverage in the Florida game is an example of a decent release that Washington needs to build on. It’s a 1st and 10 play with 8:45 in the third quarter as the single receiver in a 3×1, 10 personnel shotgun set.

Washington and his quarterback set up a subtle double move on this play. The quarterback takes his drop looking to the trips receiver side as Washington gives a quick shoulder fake to the inside and then accelerates up the sideline. Although it doesn’t seem like much, Washington’s fake is quick and thorough enough to momentarily freeze the defender and it gives the receiver a step.

I like how Washington uses his inside arm to frame and enforce this separation from the trailing defender. The receiver catches the ball over his inside shoulder and turns inside the numbers with a nice dip to avoid the safety. Although he doesn’t break the tackle of the trailing cornerback, he drags the defender another five yards and maintains a grip on the ball as the Florida Gator swats at it relentlessly. Three years from now, Washington probably has an additional 5-10 pounds of muscle that will make this tackle even more difficult for a cornerback to make.

Press-Release Technique

Washington is willing to use his hands against press coverage, but his technique needs more refinement. Right now, it appears as if he doesn’t have a grasp of the variety of moves he can use and when to use them. Here’s a play against Florida where he turns an out into a streak and the play ends with the ball bouncing off his chest near the end line. Although I’ll talk about the end of this play in more detail, the first thing I want you to see is the initial release.

Watch the replay and you’ll see where Washington’s problems begin. When the defender presents an obstacle during the release, Washington doesn’t use his inside arm to work through the defender. Instead, he uses his right arm to cross over and make contact. This type of move compromises a receiver’s balance, slows his stride, and has no real strength behind it.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that Washington is right-handed and this move is a product of him not having release techniques ingrained into his game. It’s a reaction to the defender and the result is an awkward move that has little impact. In fact, the way Washington earns initial separation is with his left arm as he makes the break outside. But by the time Washington achieves this distance the route is breaking open late, the quarterback is under pressure, and Washington now has to run another route to work open.

This is why it’s so important for a player to have refined technique. Washington is tall, strong, and fast, but if he has to think about what to do rather than have practiced methods that are second-nature reactions, it hinders the execution of a play.

The second half of the play is worth discussing in theory despite the fact that Washington steps on the boundary well before he reaches the end zone on this route adjustment and a penalty would have nullified any catch he could have made. What I don’t like about the end of his play is Washington’s attempt to catch the ball over his shoulder rather than turn back to the ball and make an aggressive attempt to snare the target. It’s possible the velocity of the throw was hard to gauge and Washington makes the wrong call based on this factor, but it’s also a passive attempt to “receive” the ball rather than fight to “catch” it.

When the ball arrives, Washington still has to open his inside shoulder to the trailing defender and this gives the defender a lane to break up the target. If Washington turns to face the ball and tries to highpoint it, he has a better shot on this play. This play isn’t a result of Washington fearing contact, just not having a feel for what to do on the play.

This route against Texas A&M is another demonstration of a talented athlete in need of better release technique. Washington is the single receiver at the right numbers with the cornerback playing tight and with a slight shade to the outside of the receiver on this 2nd and 10 at the A&M 47 with 1:56 in the half.

Washington takes an outside release, but the corner presses the receiver drives Washington too far outside. There’s no chance Washington gets down field in time to make a play on this ball.  If the receiver dips his outside shoulder away from the source of the press and drives through his release with the acceleration he’s capable of using, his position will force the defender to relinquish contact or incur a penalty.

Another technique would have been to rip through the contact, but Washington unintentionally sustains the contact. The Missouri receiver is still playing with the mindset that he’s strong enough to push a defender off him with raw strength and hasn’t mastered how to use leverage. This is a college football mindset of a big-time athlete. He needs to learn a professional mindset of winning against opponents who are athletically on a more even playing field.

I for one believe Washington can learn these skills. If he does, he could become a star. I’m talking optimum scenarios here. I think a more reasonable expectation for Washington is for him to develop into a starter in 3-4 years and provide a team 40-60 catches, 600-800 yards, and 5-7 touchdowns as a secondary option that can stretch the field the same way a healthy Sidney Rice does in Seattle.

For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.The 2014 RSP will available April 1 and if you pre-order before February 10, you get a 10 percent discount. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.

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