- Jake Trotter, College Football
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NORMAN, Okla. -- Two years ago, R.J. Washington watched as good buddy Pryce Macon emerged out of nowhere to propel Oklahoma past Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship. Then last season, Washington witnessed fellow end Frank Alexander earn Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, just a season after essentially losing his starting job.
"When you have outside people even coaches tell you something you may take it to heart," Washington said. "But when you have someone real close to you, in the same position as you, tell you they're going to go do something, and then go out and do it? It's like, 'Man, they were right. This can be done.'"
Going into his senior season, Washington finds himself in a similar position. And he's just hoping to go out the same way Macon and Alexander did.
"It started with Pryce, then Frank came out and had his best year," Washington said. "I'm trying to be next."
Washington arrived four years ago with impossible expectations. He was ranked the No. 2 defensive end prospect in the country and was No. 11 in the 2008 ESPNU 150.
Like the majority of incoming players, there was an adjustment curve to the college game. Except as a former "can't-miss" recruit, Washington kept getting asked why he wasn't playing. Over and over again.
"It definitely messed with me," Washington admitted. "You go from being that guy, where everyone is looking at you, to like, 'You're not playing? You're not playing? You're still not playing?'"
Washington redshirted as a freshman. Then stood on the sidelines the next season. And the next, too.
"To be honest with you, it really, really bugged me my first couple of years," he said. "Just because everyone is like, 'Man you should be starting.' People even to this day say, 'Weren't you the No. 1 recruit in the nation? Shouldn't you already be starting?' And the only thing you can really do is change your attitude."
Washington admitted his attitude was, initially, not the greatest. The hype got to him, too.
"You start to have this pity party and start making excuses because you're young, you're not really mature," he said. "Now that I'm older I can reflect on it and say, you know what, hype is hype. It's cool and everything. It felt good. But at the end of the day, you still have to put in the work, if not work harder than everyone else because you are put on that pedestal. It was hard to deal with in the beginning."
Washington ended his pity party when he saw what happened with Macon. His first four years, Macon rarely got on the field. But as a senior, he worked his way into the starting lineup late in the season, then was MVP of the Big 12 title game, recording five tackles for loss, three sacks and two forced fumbles in OU's 23-20 victory over the Cornhuskers.
"I remember Pryce telling me, 'This is my senior year, so I got to go get it,'" Washington said. "Then he had that great season. Then Frank, he came out and had a great season. I was like, 'Dang, there's something to this staying positive thing.'"
Washington got his first extensive playing time last season, thanks to a better outlook and OU's installment of the "Endy" package, which placed four ends on the field at the same time in obvious passing situations. But it wasn't until the Insight Bowl with starter Ronnell Lewis out that Washington really emerged. Facing off against Iowa tackle Riley Rieff -- a surefire high first-round NFL draft pick next month -- Washington twice beat Rieff around the edge to sack quarterback James Vandenberg.
"A definite confident boost," Washington said of his performance against Iowa. "It showed me more importantly that I can do it. It's not just a hyped thing. As long I play in the system and do what the coaches tell me, I'll be all right. It helped me, if anything, to buy in even more."
Washington has carried that over into the offseason. By all accounts he had a fabulous winter in the weight room and this spring has all but locked down a starting position. The only thing left now is to go out just like Macon and Alexander.
"It's your last year, what else you gonna do? You gonna sit there and whine about the past or are you gonna go grind?" he said. "I'm gonna go grind."
Defensive end R.J. Washington was one of the top recruits in the country in 2008. After a few disappointing seasons, he's finally ready to have a breakout year -- as a senior.