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A Fast Start to the Season Isn't Enough : UCLA: Running back Washington says he has learned a lesson from his past inconsistency.


It was a Saturday night scrimmage, and Daron Washington took a handoff from Wayne Cook, took a step to his left, then cut back, stopping in the end zone.

Great practice for a UCLA highlight film, script written by Daron Washington, produced by Daron Washington, starring Daron Washington as ballcarrier, receiver, blocker.

Call it "Washington Grows Up." And call it a case of his actions speaking as loudly as his words.

"It's hard for some guys to say, 'I was wr . . . , wr-, I was wr . . . ' to say 'I was wrong,' " says Wayne Moses, who coaches the Bruin running backs. "It's time to stop talking about who missed this block, or what would have happened or could have happened on a play. Now he's starting to see that it's been his fault in the past. When you start accepting responsibility, you are starting to get mature."

Washington is the top returning back at UCLA, in line to step into the spot vacated by Kevin Williams.

"He's the lead dog, so to speak," Moses says. "Whatever happens after this is up to him."

That's how Washington wants it.

"I've established myself as the No. 1 guy, and there's a lot of pressure in that," he says. "That's OK. I work best, I think, when I know I'm the one they are looking for."

After carrying only five times in 1991 as a redshirt freshman, Washington played at least 30 downs in each of UCLA's first eight games last season and gained 447 yards in 89 carries. He caught 13 passes, tops among the Bruin running backs, and was the starter against Stanford, Washington State and Arizona State, when Williams was injured.

But after scoring five touchdowns in the season's first three games, and gaining 114 yards--including a 63-yard run--and scoring twice against San Diego State in Game 3, he hit a plateau.

He gained only eight yards in nine carries against Arizona in a game that started UCLA's slide into oblivion, and his play was mediocre over the next four weeks. It was nonexistent against Oregon State and Oregon, as the Bruins began to right themselves, and sporadic against USC.

He found himself shuffled back on the depth chart, replaced by freshman Sharmon Shah for a game, and then by Chris Alexander, who made the most of an opportunity with a 103-yard game against California and 227 yards against Oregon State.

It was a lesson Washington won't forget.

"After that, this past season showed me that it wouldn't be easy," he says. "What made me realize that I had to work a lot harder was that I dropped the ball a few times, and the last three games, I didn't play so much--and that hurt. I realized that if I wanted to get to the top, I was going to have to work on the small things, like ball security. The fundamentals.

"When you get to a position and then get dropped back in the rotation, you begin to realize things."

Call it a crisis of confidence.

"It wasn't a lack of effort," Moses says. "For whatever reason, things weren't going well--not just for him, for everybody--and, consequently, he got down on himself. When you get down, your confidence goes down and it's hard to get it back."

A months-long process that carried through spring practice, when he re-established himself as the front-runner for the top running back job, has restored Washington's confidence.

"I'm a junior now and I only have two years left in the program," he says. "This year I'm looking forward to doing big things to set up an even bigger senior year.

"I expect a lot of myself. In a 12-game season (that would include a bowl), I'm looking for at least 1,200 yards to be happy. I would like to average at least 100 yards or better a game to be content.

"And that's not all. I would like to catch a lot of passes coming out of the backfield to show I'm a complete player, as well as block well. I want to show I can do it all."

Show whom?

The coaches, and NFL scouts. Growing up in Texas, he was a Dallas Cowboy fan and idolized Tony Dorsett. He sees himself playing pro ball.

One of the reasons he came to UCLA, choosing it over Texas A&M, was the Bruins' penchant for throwing to running backs. Thoughts of swing passes make his eyes light up.

"Oh, man," he says, a 205-pounder with a sprinting background. "There's nothing like it. It's one thing to get the ball in the backfield, break a few tackles, go the distance. That's exciting.

"But when you get the ball in the open field, that's when you can show what you can really do. It's just entirely different. It doesn't come often, so that's when you're looking to showcase what you can really do."

Showcase is a word he uses often.

"I talked to Coach (Homer) Smith, and he says he's going to find me a way to get some running room. Then I can showcase my talent. What more can I ask?

"I'm going to shock some people. They don't know too much about me. I didn't do much last year--only showed some flashes. I'm going to show that extra gear people are always talking about. I'm going to show them. It's coming."

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