NORMAN, Okla. -- When R.J. Washington looks back on his career at Oklahoma, he can't help but feel a twinge of regret.
The Oklahoma defensive end sees missed opportunities littered throughout his first three seasons in Norman. He arrived on campus as one of the top recruits in the nation -- No. 11 in the 2008 ESPN 150 -- yet didn't become a core member of the defense until his redshirt junior season in 2011. A ton of potential production went untapped as Washington struggled to understand how to maximize his unique ability.
Those thoughts are the driving force as he heads into his senior season.
Therefore, Washington has two main goals in 2012: He wants to have a stellar senior season and help OU win a national championship and, and he wants to mentor the younger defensive ends with the hope they'll have better careers than he has had.
"During summer workouts I was in peoples' ears," Washington said. "You need to do this, you need to do that. I'm not perfect, I make mistakes like everyone else, but it's just 'Learn from me and what I've done so you can be a better man, a better player than me. This is my first year starting and I'm a fifth-year senior -- I want you to do better than I did. You have three or four years left, you can have great careers.'"
As much as the Sooners plan to lean on Washington on the field, the OU coaches are also looking toward the senior to be a leader in the locker room.
"You have to run your locker room through the players," he said. "The coaches can't play for us, they can't police us. Nobody can tell you to do something like your teammate can because it will mean that much more. I'm not their dad but it's like 'Look this is how it is, this is how it's going to be and this is what you could do to your life. And not just football.'"
Washington's focus on being a leader has been noticed. Head coach Bob Stoops has lauded his leadership while defensive ends coach Bobby Jack Wright is seeing it firsthand this August.
"His leadership has jumped out tenfold," Wright said. "He's become a good player and a very good, vocal team leader. He's saying the right things and he means it. He's not just talking the talk."
Washington's new mindset stems from his early experiences at OU and his mindset during those first three years.
"I thought it was like high school; I'll make a play and I'll be golden," he said. "I'll finally get on the field, make a play and they'll have to play me."
Those thoughts kept him on the sideline instead of on the Owen Field turf.
"People tell me I was supposed to be in the [NFL] years ago, 'What happened?'" Washington said. "Well I got in my own way; I'm old enough to be able to say that. I have had time to reflect and look at things.
"When I say getting in my own way, I'm saying there were things I was doing that I didn't see because I was making excuses for myself. 'If they give me a chance, I'll show them.' My pride was my biggest problem, once I got past it, I was fine."
"Last year, I realized Coach Wright is not joking, you have to earn your way on the field," Washington said. "Why are you not doing something extra? What are you doing that separates you from someone else? Once you look inward and stop making excuses like a teenager, you can move past it. I didn't move past it as fast as I should have.
"There's nothing I can do about it now but make this last year the most memorable for myself, my teammates and the University of Oklahoma."
Washington has traveled a rocky road to become the player and leader he is today. And the Sooners should be the beneficiaries -- this season and beyond.
"It was a process," he said. "It took me realizing these excuses don't matter because they don't get you anywhere. You can make excuses but at the end of the day you didn't get that done.
"It was a natural progression to becoming a man."