LAFAYETTE — When Darzil Washington talks about gaining ground on quarterbacks, those are the fun football moments that make him smile.

When he temporarily lost the chance last year to have that two-man race because of injury, the best way for him to make up the gap was to lose something else.

Washington lost 35 pounds as he worked his way back into shape. It is a number that both he and Cajuns coach Mark Hudspeth enthusiastically mentioned. “(Washington) worked out intensely and is a different animal,” Hudspeth said.

That has Washington, a 6-foot-3, 243-pound junior linebacker out of Edgard, primed to build on his finish to last season that saw him register a pair of sacks in the Cajuns’ New Orleans Bowl win over Nevada.

The ability to go through offseason programs has provided Washington another tool for success along with the weight loss.

“I’m doing less thinking now and more reacting,” Washington said. “Confidence is everything. After being in the system, I am not lagging. I’m more used to the system now.”

Cajuns’ defensive coordinator Melvin Smith stressed the necessity of putting players in positions that take advantage of their best specific skills.

“One of the worst things you can do is put your playbook on the field and leave your players on the sidelines,” Smith said.

For Washington, zeroing in on an opposing quarterback has always been one of his main football motives. As a senior at West St. John High School, Washington had 30 tackles for loss, 14 of which were sacks. As he progressed back toward full speed last year for the Cajuns, Washington’s numbers followed a similar theme. In 10 games, Washington had 22 tackles; five were sacks. He also managed to force a fumble in the regular-season finisher at Troy as a lead-in to his New Orleans Bowl exploits. That gave him a boost going into the preparation period for the upcoming season.

“That game against Nevada was a breakout game,” Washington said. “Just being a third-down pass rusher and playing my role, that gave me a lot of confidence after looking back at where I came from — being out of shape and everything, and still being to put up the numbers I did.”

Between those two reference points when Washington developed from a senior at West St. John into a bowl-game pass rusher for the Cajuns, he traveled a few miles. Washington originally signed with Texas A&M before enrolling at Eastern Arizona Junior College as a freshman. He had six sacks in seven games at East Los Angeles College before the injury bug bit him.

After experiencing those moves, Washington has been in the same system for more than a year. Not only does he have a higher comfort level, the coaches who have seen Washington for a limited time have come away with a solid first impression about his foundation of talent that can be added to this season. “If Darzil continues to get better at all the little things, he could be a great player,” Smith said. “The more he gets disciplined off the field, he has made a lot of improvement. He can rush the passer. He has talent.”