Washington evolves into Missouri's TD machine

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Comparisons haven't come easily for Gary Pinkel as he's watched tailback Derrick Washington blossom into his team's top running threat.

The bruising 215-pound Washington is a tough between-the-tackles runner as evidenced by his current status as the nation's leading scorer. But he's also a versatile receiver with soft hands and enough speed to streak by most linebackers on pass patterns.

"He's very natural," Pinkel said. "He's a great kid with a great work ethic and I think it's instinct. People ask me, 'Who does he look like?' I think he's very unique. I don't know what he looks like. But all I know is that I like what I see."

After winning the starting tailback position during the spring, Washington envisioned helping his team. But he said he never imagined the kind of season he's produced in the Tigers' 5-0 start.

Washington leads the nation with 12 touchdowns, scoring at least two touchdowns in each of Missouri's five victories to start the season. He also ranks second in the Big 12 in rushing with 500 yards heading into Saturday's showdown against 5-0 Oklahoma State in Columbia, Mo.

"They told me earlier that I'm leading the nation in scoring and I didn't even know it," Washington said. "It's just crazy. I'm glad it's happening, but it's still unbelievable for me."

The biggest offensive question mark coming into the season for the Tigers has evolved into one of its most consistent offensive weapons. And that's saying something considering all of the Tigers' weapons.

The loss of Tony Temple, the only back in school history to run for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, was expected to cripple the Tigers' rushing attack.

Instead, Washington, who barely played last season as a freshman, has become even more valuable to the Tigers than Temple. He's developed into a bruising running threat when he's in the backfield.

But on about half of the Tigers' snaps, he lines up as a wide receiver, highlighting his pass-catching abilities and his versatility. He's snagged nine receptions for 92 yards and two TD grabs.

"Derrick just presents a lot of different problems for defenses," Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel said. "Anytime you have the leading scorer in the nation on your team, you know he's doing something right. He's just having a great year so far for us and hopefully he'll keep it up."

Washington arrived at Missouri after a heralded high school career at Raymore-Peculiar High School in the Kansas City suburb of Raymore, Mo. He was a high school teammate of standout Missouri tight end Chase Coffman. Washington was a part of three-straight state championship teams, producing more than 5,500 yards from scrimmage and 83 touchdowns in his career.

But he received scant playing time behind Temple last season, producing only 36 carries as he watched most of the season from the bench. That lack of use might have been the best thing to happen for him as he gained maturity and confidence in the Tigers' offense, Pinkel said.

After beating out Jimmy Jackson for the starting position during the spring, Jackson was ready to blossom once the season began. He returned to the team for summer practice with a renewed sense of purpose and a new tattoo on his bicep to remind him of his attitude change. It reads "Rare Breed."

"It's not been a surprise to me at all," Pinkel said. "I knew this was going to happen, I just kind of sat back and let it happen. He's a talented guy. He's mature. He's got a chance to be a high, high level running back. And he's only started five games and you see what I see. The good news about him is he's just going to get a lot better."

With players like Daniel, Coffman, Jeremy Maclin, Tommy Saunders and Danario Alexander in the Tigers' arsenal, Washington sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of what might be one of the most potent offenses in Big 12 history.

"I feel like I'm kind of under the radar, but I like that," Washington said. "We have some potent weapons on this offense, and you can't stop all of us. I think nobody's really noticing who I am, and I like it ... I hope it stays that way, so that I can keep busting things open like last week."

That choice of words was apropos considering his bruising running style against Nebraska last week. Washington gashed the Cornhuskers for a career-best 139 yards to help snap the Tigers' 30-year losing streak at Nebraska.

Washington's big effort was the crowning achievement in a masterful Missouri offensive performance where the Tigers committed just one penalty, didn't turn the ball over, didn't allow a sack and were not forced to punt.

"We talked about it all week, coming to town and making history," Washington said. "And then, we went out and did it."

The Tigers will face a challenging two-game stretch of ranked teams. Their performances against Oklahoma State and Texas will be a big indicator if Missouri really is a legitimate national-title threat.

Washington hopes to continue his early success during the rest of the season, maintaining his unexpected role as the Tigers' designated touchdown scorer.

"I love to have the ball in my hands and to break a line up," Washington said. "We never know how often that's going to happen, but every time I get the ball, I'm trying to score. I'm liking it right now, because it's something I never dreamed of being able to do here."