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Everything To Prove

Washington Is Rushing to Put Together That One Memorable Season for USC


Every tailback who walks through Heritage Hall is mesmerized by those four Heisman trophies.

There was a time when it wasn't unreasonable for Delon Washington to dream.

"I thought I was going to have one of them in there, by either this year or last year," Washington said. "That was a long time ago."

It was a very long time ago.

Washington is raising his eyes toward his final season now, with two lengthy suspensions, a small mountain of what-ifs and only 1,649 yards behind him.

"You can't go back and change history. I wish I was in the history books," said Washington, who has missed 12 games because of suspensions during his three-year career.

He's not a dazzling runner, but Washington rushed for more than 100 yards in his first game in 1994--something no true freshman had done at USC in the season's opening game.

His sophomore year, he had three 100-yard games in a row and ran for 1,109 yards--the only USC tailback to top 1,000 yards since Mazio Royster in 1990 at a school that once had 10 1,000-yard rushers in a row.

Those are the highlights.

"When he's played, he's played well," Coach John Robinson said. "Some real unfortunate things have happened. He's not had that lucky year. This could be it."

The low lights are more complicated. Washington's first suspension began two games into his freshman season, when the NCAA questioned his ACT score and USC decided to hold him out until Washington was cleared, shortly before USC ended its season by playing in the Cotton Bowl. It made for a difficult year for an 18-year-old still grieving the loss of a brother in a shooting death.

The second suspension came last season after Washington's truthfulness was questioned during an investigation into a controversial "easy A" course.

"It was disappointing, but things happen for a reason," Washington said. "You look toward the future. I always do that.

"You can look back and try to see how you could have avoided things, but I probably could have done things differently and still been suspended. What's done is done. . . . I tell myself I wish I could have redshirted my freshman year. But I have to look past that and say, well, I did my time. I have to look forward.

"I'm just looking at it to have a good season and finish up my college career good."

As long as he proves able, he is going to get the chance.

USC is embarrassed about its 114-yard-a-game rushing average last season, and with a once-inept line now considered veteran and a rookie quarterback taking the snaps, the Trojans insist they are going to run.

When new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson looks around to see who's going to carry the ball, his eyes fall first on Washington, even though fullback LaVale Woods was the Trojans' leading rusher last season.

"When you're good and have a chance to be great, you give that person the ball until they can't take it anymore," Jackson said.

Whether Washington will be able to carry the ball effectively 20-30 times a game is one of the questions the coaching staff has. He reported in good shape after working hard during the summer, but lost some of his conditioning while sitting out to avoid aggravating an Achilles' tendon injury.

"I want Delon Washington to get stronger as the game goes on, but I'm not sure his Achilles' will be ready to do that [against Florida State in the Coliseum on Saturday]," Robinson said.

Assistant coach Charles White, the 1979 Heisman winner, wants Washington to finally prove he has the conditioning to be the workhorse.

"He's got to rise to the challenge, and part of rising to the challenge is being able to be in shape," White said.

"Some signs we've seen, it does not look like he's in proper condition. Delon's capable, but there's always been a question about his conditioning."

If Washington stumbles, behind him wait Malaefou MacKenzie, a fitness-obsessed freshman, and sophomore Petros Papadakis.

Washington never got rolling last season. After sitting out the first three games because of the suspension, he finished with only 370 yards, but the highlight was a 67-yard season-finale against Notre Dame when he scored on a 15-yard run with 1:50 left and added the two-point conversion to send the game to overtime. USC won it.

"I wish I could have had a complete season," Washington said. "You just can't change it. You can only look forward and hope it gets better."

Maybe bad luck played a part in Washington's suspensions, or maybe bad judgment. But the true misfortune in his life came when his brother, Benny, was shot near the family's home in Dallas in 1994, just as Delon was about to sign with USC.

That lasting grief is probably part of why Washington has always accepted his football troubles with such resignation.

"The first year was more painful for me," he said. "Sometimes you want to give up. But you say, 'I'm too strong a person to give up.'

"You can't dwell on the past. I try not to look back on anything bad. A couple of bad things have happened already. I hope that's over.

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