TAMPA — Oddly enough, Skip Holtz sees the emerging toughness and maturity of USF senior cornerback Quenton Washington best illustrated in the big smile the 22-year-old reluctantly flashes with quiet confidence.
You'd never know it, but three of his lower front teeth were knocked in during last year's game at Miami, when Washington was blocking on a punt and tripped, then another player stumbled and put his hand through his facemask. Washington pushed the teeth back forward with his tongue, got a new mouthpiece and got back in the game on the next series. His fourth-quarter deflection in the end zone forced Miami to settle for a field goal, keeping USF within a touchdown in a game where the Bulls rallied with two minutes left, then won in overtime.
His coaches, shocked that he'd made such a quick recovery, still had no expectations of seeing Washington at practice the next night, joking that they might not see him until the pregame walkthrough the following Friday.
"The M.O. on him when we came was how he didn't like to practice all the time. If his leg hurt, he wasn't going," Holtz remembered. "We go to practice on Sunday night (after Miami), and he's out there in line. It was like, 'Q, what are you doing here?' He said, 'Coach, look behind me. You see how long that line is? I work too hard to go to the back. I'm not giving this spot up.' Q has impressed me with how much he's grown as a football player."
Today, Washington is one of two seniors (along with guard Jeremiah Warren) that Holtz chose to represent USF at the Big East's media day in Newport, R.I. To fully appreciate how much that honor means to Washington, you have to hear his coaches talk about the transformation he made to earn it.
"It's remarkable to me, after being in it so many years, the change in him mentally and physically," said defensive backs coach Rick Smith, 63, entering his 40th year in coaching. "I've never had a player improve as much as he has in a year. He's just matured. It's unbelievable. If he keeps going, then I think he'll be drafted."
Smith didn't think much of Washington when he followed Holtz from East Carolina in 2010, sliding safety Mistral Raymond, a former walk-on, over to be a starting cornerback because he didn't trust what he had at the position, including Washington.
"He thought he was better than he was. He was lazy. Didn't work out like he should. I told him for a corner at his level, I said, 'You're weak as pondwater,' " Smith bluntly recalled.
At USF's pro day in March 2010, as his teammates worked out for NFL scouts, Washington made a comment to Smith about how his physique wouldn't matter once he showed off his time in the 40-yard dash. Smith promptly walked him over to a veteran scout, who told him he needed to be able to take his shirt off with confidence to be taken seriously as a prospect. The message got to Washington, who has flourished this year under new strength coach Mike Golden, turning what was literally a weakness into a source of pride.
"I can just tell in my body that I'm getting stronger and getting bigger," said Washington, who came to USF at 172 pounds but is now a sturdy 200. "Coach Golden is a phenomenal strength coach. He makes you want to work out, and when you're seeing results, you really want to come back in there. What can I do today? What can I do today extra?"
As an experienced senior — his 24 career starts are the most on USF's defense — Washington is embracing a leadership role, something Smith said would not have been taken seriously a year ago.
"I felt like at one time he was a joke when he opened his mouth last year. Nobody would listen to him," Smith said. "But because of the way he's worked, he is a leader. You can't be a positive leader if you don't lead by example, and that's what he's trying to do."
In Smith, Washington has the same position coach for consecutive seasons for the first time in his five years with the Bulls. That helps not only with familiarity, but in building the instincts that lead to trust from coaches. "He loves DBs that listen, but he hates robots," Washington explains. "He wants us to listen on the practice field, but when it comes to the games, he wants to be able to play and make decisions."
One area he'll have to improve on is interceptions — Washington had 12 as a high school senior in 2006, including four returned for touchdowns, but didn't get his first at USF until his 36th game, in the Bulls' bowl victory against Clemson. He has blocked two punts that have been returned for touchdowns, but now he'll have the chance to make big plays on defense as well.
Washington will graduate in December with a degree in communications with a minor in leadership, but more important than his football progress, he has grown as a person. Last year, he became a father a week before the season when son Quenton Jr. was born. The past year has taught him to balance the demands of being a college athlete and a father, giving him a new source of motivation.
"I was blessed with a child, and it was time to step up and become a man, to put away my childish things," Washington said. "That's what I did. I feel like it helps me be a leader. It levels me out, from football to my home life. It helps me to come in here and know I have something I'm working for, a child to provide for. This is a great opportunity to do that."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346. Check out his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bulls and follow him at Twitter.com/gregauman.