"Coach Croom is going to make that decision later on," Washington said Friday. "Right now I'm just here to be one of the coaches on the staff." But based on the answers given to reporter questions, it seems reasonably certain Washington will be in charge of wide receivers. Just as he was this past season at Kansas State, and before that for 11 years at Tennessee. In fact, since graduating from Auburn in 1987 the former Tiger quarterback has spent his career coaching offensive personnel.
"I coached quarterbacks at TCU, running backs at Baylor," he said. "I even had tight ends a little bit at Southwest Louisiana. So I've done all the skill positions." And while he's been on-the-job and on campus barely a week, Washington has already observed offensive potential in the 2007 Bulldogs.
"I've only been here a few days and been moving. But I've watched a little (2006 tape). We've got a chance. I can't speak in-depth but taking a quick look and thin-slicing it I think we have a chance to be a good football team."
Washington has had some experience with Bulldog football before, besides his playing days on the plains. He coached Tennessee wideouts from 1995-2005, including those deep-threat Vols who made the two decisive, fourth-quarter touchdown catches in the Georgia Dome in 1998 to defeat Mississippi State for the SEC Championship. Tennessee also took wins in 1995, 2002 and '03 with Washington on the sidelines.
But it was a professional and personal relationship that helped bring Washington to Starkville. "Coach Woody McCorvey and I coached together at Tennessee. When he left I told him if ever a position came up where I could join the staff just give me a call. Something came up, and he called me.
"He's sort of a mentor. I've been following his career for a long time, from his Clemson days, his Alabama days and me being from Mobile. He was a guy I felt like I could work with." Now, they are working together again and in the Southeastern Conference where Washington played. Just as important to his decision to come back to the SEC was an opportunity to work for a different type of boss. Washington can't recall exactly when he met Croom but it was certainly back in his prep days. He's kept track of the former Tide lineman and welcomes an opportunity to be on the same team at last.
"Just the little I've watched, I think there is a plan in place," Washington says. "It consists of four or five years and right now we're in year-four. I think Coach Croom has put the people in place from a personnel standpoint and I think the coaches are in place that he wants. The potential is there, no doubt.
"I think he is straightforward, honest, a guy who has the intangibles it takes to be a head coach and to win in this conference. Just talking to Coach McCorvey about some things they've done in the past, he's a no-nonsense guy which is good. Kids nowadays need somebody who is no-nonsense for guidance, direction, etc., etc. But I think a guy like that is a guy who can win in this conference. It's a matter of players, making sure we get the right kind of players here."
Speaking of which, Washington has joined the staff in time for the stretch-run in recruiting season. In fact he will be involved with this weekend's and the next's critical visits, where Croom plans to seal the signing-deal with a group of prospects vital to that aforementioned plan. While his fellow staff-newcomer Harbison has been assigned some specific recruiting areas, Washington—after a year away from the SEC—is serving as a swingman in the process. "I'm just sort of filling in. They send me to different places that I'm familiar with right now. I've never really recruited this Mississippi area, with the exception of some of the junior colleges."
There's an ironic twist to this career-turn, going back to the early 1980s when a quarterback at Murphy High School in Mobile was being recruited by SEC programs. Had things played out just a bit differently, Washington might have always been a Bulldog.
"In high school we had six visits at the time, matter of fact this was my first official visit. Bob Sharp was my high school coach and he went to Mississippi State. Mardye McDole played at Murphy and went to Mississippi State, they told us a lot about this program. It was one of my visits because of the interest they showed.
"I liked watching John Bond playing quarterback, he was a heck of a football player and the long hair and carelessness with the ball. I wanted to fling the ball around like he was! It goes all the way back as a kid, I watched them play and enjoyed my visit here. Lamar Windham I think was my host."
When it came time to sign the papers, though, Washington decided to stay in-state…and to turn his back on a lifetime of following Alabama. He inked with Auburn and never looked back as part of a Tiger program that came to the forefront of the old 10-team SEC. Not that Washington anticipates any ill-will with the boss come Iron Bowl week. "I think with Coach Croom being here at Mississippi State he has to have a dislike for Alabama himself. Not as strong as me, but he wants to beat ‘em!"
Croom already has one win over Alabama, scored last November. The challenge for the coach, his revised staff, and the 2007 Bulldogs is to break out of their pattern of scoring one big SEC win per season and put together a much more complete campaign. Washington's timing is good as he joins an offense that came to life in the second half of 2006 and should be well-developed by now. Particularly at wide receiver with threats like Tony Burks, Aubrey Bell, Jamayel Smith having shown their stuff already, some other talent activated for this year, and more expected to sign in February.
As far as the gameplan Croom and McCorvey favor, Washington should fit in easily. "I'm pretty familiar with it. The system is similar to Kansas State in a lot of ways. People who implement the ‘West Coast' offense if you want to call it that, it's modified by each team from a terminology standpoint to a philosophy standpoint. But there is some core stuff that is carried throughout the whole system."
And there are some core fundamentals Washington wants in the wideouts he already has, and those he intends to ink. First and foremost, the coach is after play-makers.
"Fast, quick, a guy who can change direction, great hands, student of the game, he loves winning more than he hates losing. A guy who is determined, has focus, goes to class, doesn't drink, doesn't smoke…that's a perfect guy! But there are no perfect guys, so you look for a guy who can make plays. Watch him on tape, can he make plays, can he be the difference in the ball game, on our football team can he be better than the guys I have? When the ball is in his hands, does he make the other coach go ‘wow'? Does he scare the opponent? That's the kind of guy I want.
And not necessarily guys who primarily caught passes in high school. It may be a prep defensive back, even a quarterback, who can thrive as a SEC receiver. "And if the guy plays basketball it's even better!" Washington says. "There's some things you can teach from a fundamental standpoint. But that ‘wow' factor I think mom and dad have a lot to do with that!
"You just have to dig deep and find that guy who has the ability to change the game. Because nowadays receivers are so important. If they can't change the game, if there's no threat on the outside then people can load up in the box and stop you from running the ball and you're dead."
There can never be enough play-makers on any roster, so Croom and staff are after any and all willing to play their Bulldog game. Washington has recruited against State in the past; now he is recruiting for MSU and has an idea of what this program has to offer.
"I think our facilities are capable of bringing prospects in and recruiting people. I think there are some things we've got to do, everybody is trying to beat the Joneses and have better than the next guy. But here we don't need to be better than the next guy, we just need something that kids can call their own and take pride in. What we have right now isn't bad.
"The facility across the street, the weightroom is unique, the indoor facility is really good. Baseball and football together, split down the middle, I've never seen that before but I know how important baseball is here so I understand why! It's good, it's everything you need to win. There's some things I'm sure Coach Croom is working on and pushing to get, an academic center…we need to catch up in that."
Washington is enjoying catching back up on SEC life. His year at Kansas State helped him appreciate the old league that much more, especially the sheer speed the game is played at. "The Big XII is good football, don't get me wrong. Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State have as much talent as anywhere I've been around. But watching the games from the outside, or getting the film, the speed of the game is just so much different. From the top to the bottom every week is a battle, it doesn't matter who you play. And some teams you can throw the record away because it doesn't really matter.
"I think this conference is the best conference in football, without a doubt. I think Florida proved it this year. I don't think many people gave them a chance but you can't under-estimate speed. And, they were fortunate enough to have a four-year starter at quarterback, too! That made a difference…and a freshman receiver who wasn't too bad."
Hmmm, focusing on receivers even before his boss has formally designated an assignment…is Washington telling something? What was it that brought him to Mississippi State? A big laugh.
"To coach football, I hope!"