There was a lot of talk about improvement in Year 2 under UL coach Billy Napier during August training camp.
But judging the level of tone and excitement in Napier’s voice, there may not be a player who has improved more from 2018 to 2019 than sophomore cornerback A.J. Washington from C.E. King High in Houston.
The reasons to expect the Ragin’ Cajuns to improve are many.
“If you’d have to say who is the most improved and I’m going to tell you something, it goes back to our theory here,” Napier said. “It’s not just who they are as a football player. I mean this guy has made drastic improvements as a person.”
In other words, Napier’s happiness in explaining Washington’s maturity process is two-fold. The pure football coach side of him certainly likes having another viable option at the critical position of cornerback.
But the other side of Napier as a coach is the business of building character in his players.
“It’s not just who they are as a football player,” Napier said. “I mean this guy has made drastic improvements as a person. He’s much more disciplined, much more focused, much more urgency. He’s matured so much. He had a terrific semester in the spring and then the summer.
“All of these things add up to a guy who is more ready to play the game. We’ve got to focus on who they are as people and who they are as students and if they’ve got ability, the football takes care of itself and he’s the best example of that. We’re so proud of him.”
It doesn’t take very long into an interview with Nick Ralston to notice his maturity level.
Consequently, you’re beginning to hear Washington’s name as one of the top reserves at cornerback behind projected starters Michael Jacquet and Eric Garror.
“He’s got a terrific career in front of him,” Napier said. "This is a 6-foot-plus guy who ran 10.6 in high school. He’s got all the tools you’d want as a corner. That’s why we recruited him."
To hear Washington explain his transformation since his freshman season, it’s simply mind over matter.
“I think it’s the mindset,” the 6-0, 177-pound Washington said. “I know I’ve got a chip on my shoulders now. It’s time to step up, because I’m not a baby anymore and just come out here and play and show the coaches this is what you recruited me for.”
For those around the team who may not have kept up with Washington’s academic progress and his overall maturity as a young college student-athlete, he certainly grabbed their attention with a highlight-film interception of junior starter Levi Lewis in the second team scrimmage.
Since UL coach Billy Napier arrived, he has always trumpeted the value of versatility.
“He (Lewis) did have one interception,” Napier explained of Lewis’ performance in the scrimmage, “ but it was a great play by the corner — just a small margin-for-error play. Just an unbelievable interception by A.J. Washington.”
Apparently, it was one of those plays you have to see to fully understand. Washington naturally tried his best to downplay it with such descriptions as, “I kind of read the receiver,” and “he kind of backed off, so I kind of took advantage of it and I just made a play.”
That play is just an indication of the learning process Washington is riding these days. As a freshman, he played in five games, recording two tackles against Appalachian State and one against Grambling.
“Last year was a lot for me,” Washington said. “Me as a freshman, there was a lot going on that freshmen year, but now it’s coming together. We’re trying to game plan day-by-day to make sure the things we did last year, we don’t do this year.”
It was bad news in waves for UL’s tight end position over the weekend.
By the time spring football arrived, Washington was ready to put those freshman year growing pains behind him.
“Coming out of the spring, I expected myself to compete at a high level,” he said. “Last year was my growing year. I had to get used to the system and adjust to the plays. As it went further along, I got better at the playbook and my teammates were helping me. It’s coming together. I know the plays now.”
Another thing Washington has learned along the way is he wasn’t alone with the first-year struggles under defensive coordinator Ron Roberts a season ago. Now, it seems, everyone is finally on the same page.
“I feel like the communication is coming together,” Washington said. “This year, coach has been on us about communicating and I think that’s where we’ve improved.”
If his transition to becoming a UL defensive back goes as well as his academic career went at Texas-San Antonio, the Ragin’ Cajuns are going t…