Now's the time for R.J. Washington

NORMAN, Okla. -- Highly recruited, loaded with potential, yet unable to crack the starting lineup at defensive end until his senior season.

That's where Frank Alexander stood going into in 2011. It's where R.J. Washington stands now.

Despite playing sparingly his first four years, Alexander capped his college career with a monster senior season, earning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors while leading the Sooners in sacks.

Could Washington, in his final season, make a similar impact?

"They're different body types, different people, different strengths," said defensive ends coach Bobby Jack Wright. "But he could.

"I can see him right now gaining confidence every day."

During the Bob Stoops era, only Rhett Bomar, Adrian Peterson and maybe a couple of others were more highly touted as OU recruits than Washington coming out of high school. ESPN ranked him the No. 2 defensive end in the country in the class of 2008, and the No. 11 prospect overall.

But instead of making an instant impact, Washington redshirted. Then he found himself buried on the depth chart. Again and again.

"Maybe (the recruiting hype) contributed to me not working as hard, thinking maybe my athleticism would just kind of work its way in and I'd be all right," Washington said. "Then it didn't happen, then it didn't happen and didn't happen. So I tried something else."

Wright admitted that even he wasn't expecting much out of Washington last season. But backing up Alexander and Ronnell Lewis, a refocused Washington finally began to emerge. As part of OU's "Endy" package -- which placed four defensive ends on the line simultaneously -- Washington proved to be a lethal pass rusher. He finished with five batted balls and five sacks, including two in the Insight Bowl facing off against tackle Riley Reiff, an eventual first-round NFL draft pick.

"The potential has always been there," Washington said. "But my focus hasn't always been. I had always been hoping to get on the field and hope things would go right rather than preparing to get on the field and knowing things would go right."

Since the Insight Bowl, Washington has elevated his game across the board. Despite never being a starter before, he has become one of the principal leaders on the team and an invaluable intangible asset for Wright as the only veteran currently working at end. With David King having moved to tackle, the Sooners are left with sophomores Chuka Ndulue and Rashod Favors and true freshmen Charles Tapper and Michael Onuoha rotating in at the position.

"It's helped from the standpoint, not so much that R.J. is an experienced guy, because he hasn't played a lot," Wright said. "But he's a great team guy, he knows the defense, he knows all the calls, he knows the techniques and he does a great job coaching the guys in the room. So he's a big benefit. Now he's in a role where he is going to play a lot. And you take that with his ability, he really takes it upon himself to coach these guys up. That's a big plus. I love it, no question. I absolutely love it and appreciate the way he's taken them under his wing and coached them up and helped them, because I'm not always there to answer the question. He's with them all the time. It's a real bonus."

The only lingering question is how big of a bonus Washington will be on the field. He still has work to do, especially with defending the run. But Washington also has the makeup to be a special pass rusher.

"He's got to learn how to play more physical and be a better run-stopper," Wright said. "But if he could get where he plays the run game as well as he pass rushes, then he's got a chance to have a heck of a year."

Washington knows he can end his career with that kind of season. He doesn't have to look far for proof.

"I feel like seeing Frank, seeing what he did, the difference between his first couple of years, then being around his last year, it blew my mind," Washington said. "It was like, you know what, anyone can do it."

Washington, included.