National Signing Day: Wonder back Washington signs with North Carolina
By Mike London
KANNAPOLIS — Schools that tried to sway A.L. Brown football standout Damien Washington from attending North Carolina were wasting their time.
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Washington’s “recruitment” started when he was 5 years old. The guys doing that informal recruiting were fellows like Ed Cota, Brendan Haywood, Joseph Forte, Kris Lang and Ronald Curry.
“I loved Carolina basketball and was always a UNC fan,” Washington said. “I’d sit there in front of the TV with my mother and watch.”
Washington’s lifelong case of the Blues isn’t unique.
“My experience is that most of the kids in this state, if they could go anywhere they wanted, would go to Carolina,” A.L. Brown head coach Mike Newsome said. “That’s why Damien stuck with them, through everything. He loves that school.”
While Washington has grown up to be the defensive stopper and an important glue guy for a decent A.L. Brown’s hoops squad, he’s not much of a scorer.
His special athletic gifts — strength, hands and blazing speed — translate best to the football field. He can catch the ball. He can throw it. And his wheels make jaws drop.
“I was hand-timed here in 4.37 (in the 40),” Washington said.
If not for the torn meniscus he suffered — it cost him four full games — he likely would’ve been one of the state’s more heralded guys.
In the four games before he was injured, Washington was versatile and prolific — one passing TD, one return TD, two receiving TDs and seven rushing TDs.
He ran the season’s opening kickoff back for a touchdown against Shelby. In Brown’s second game at South Rowan, his five touches resulted in four scores of 57, 64, 80 and 61 yards. Even in a loss against stout 4A Porter Ridge, he rushed 16 times for 226 yards.
Washington returned to action at less than 100 percent, but he still finished the season with 962 rushing yards, 323 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns for a 12-2 team that reached the third round of the 3A playoffs.
He also played in the Shrine Bowl.
“Great competition,” he said. “Everyone was good. It made me look forward to college that much more.”
Travis Riley, the running back who preceded Washington at A.L. Brown, hasn’t had much luck at UNC so far, tearing an ACL for the second time back in November. But he did contribute to the Heels by serving as Washington’s host on his official visit. It’s not like anything could have gone wrong, and nothing did.
Newsome recently finished his first year coaching in Kannapolis after a highly successful stint at 4A Matthews Butler. He’s had ample experience with big-time players, but he said Washington’s situation when he arrived was unique.
“Usually a player like that has got all kinds of offers by his junior year, but Damien didn’t have an offer,” he said.
Butch Davis was fired at UNC in July. Everett Withers, named the interim coach, offered Washington in August, and Washington was the first verbal commitment the embattled program received with Withers at the helm.
“I didn’t want to just jump at the first offer I got,” Washington said. “But it was UNC. That’s where I wanted to go.”
Withers envisioned Washington as a DB, but he’s almost certain to be a receiver/ballcarrier for new coach Larry Fedora, whose no-huddle offense spreads the field and gets the ball to playmakers. Washington could be one of those playmakers.
“Damien’s actually a better fit for Fedora’s offense than Butch Davis’,” Newsome analyzed. “They had been looking at Damien for defense, but my feeling is this kid is an offensive player. He’s electric. He needs to get his hands on the ball.”
Washington, who sees himself competing for the Tar Heels at 195 pounds after putting in his time at the training table and the weight room, doesn’t disagree.
“For me the fun of football is in making plays,” he said. “That’s what I do best.”