SAN DIEGO — After graduating 2,000-yard rushers in back-to-back seasons, San Diego State can’t possibly have another tailback primed to eclipse the mark this year ... can they? If you ask Aztecs offensive coordinator Jeff Horton, opposing defenses would be wise to stay on high alert now that Juwan Washington is the tip of the spear.
“We’ve been blessed the last couple of years,” Horton says. “It’s never been done in the history of college football. Can he do that? I know he’ll really seize that opportunity. For his size, he’s a physical runner. He can make people miss. He has great vision. He understands how we’re blocking plays and has the acceleration for being able to hit it. I tell our guys this all the time, to have a big run, two things gotta happen: You gotta be able to break a tackle, and you gotta be able to make someone miss because we can’t block ’em all.”
Washington is more in the mold of Donnel Pumphrey, who led the nation with 2,133 yards in 2016 and entered the draft standing 5'8" and 176 pounds, than the 220-pound Rashaad Penny. As a sophomore in 2017, Washington ran for 759 yards and seven touchdowns in the shadow of Penny, the nation’s leading rusher, and also ran two kickoffs back for touchdowns.
Horton says that while Pumphrey is the most agile of the trio, Washington might be the fastest. At 5'7" and 190 pounds, he’s also a lot heavier than Pumphrey, who weighed around 165 as a senior when he broke Ron Dayne’s FBS career rushing record. Horton’s background in the Dallas-Fort Worth area helped him discover Washington, who put up eye-popping film and was a top sprinter on the track team at Kennedale High School. Washington ran a hand-timed 4.3 in the 40, but since he was only 5'6" and 170 pounds as a high school junior, Power 5 recruiters were skeptical.
“One Big 12 school said, ‘You’re a good player but you’re just too small to play in our system,’” Washington says. “I just took it as motivation. Whatever school gives me that opportunity, I’m just gonna go with that.”
Horton, who had recruited Pumphrey as a 150-pound prospect out of Canyon Springs High in Las Vegas, was thrilled by the idea that some of the bigger schools had been scared off of Washington. “I look for a back who has great toughness, can be physical and has speed,” he says. “He had that. I’m a big believer that running backs come in all shapes and sizes. I never put size or weight limits on guys.”
Washington watched the Aztecs play North Carolina on the road in 2014 and was riveted by the way Pumphrey took the fight to the 21st-ranked Tar Heels, running for 100 yards and two touchdowns in an eventual 31–27 North Carolina win.
“I saw Pump running the football with his size and stature against this bigger school and told my mom, ‘This [system] is perfect for me,’” Washington recalls. “Here was this small guy getting a chance, and that was what I was hoping to get. Just an opportunity to show what I can do.”
Horton’s system stems from his time working for Chris Ault at Nevada and for Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin. He smiles at the notion that the Aztecs’ philosophy is Wisconsin with better weather, heavy on the zone and power running game. “We’re gonna run the power at you first,” Horton says. “Make you stand up. Nowadays, I don’t think a lot of people know how to fit that stuff up any more. They don’t practice against it. Defenses are smaller because everybody plays spread and they need guys that can run. All of a sudden, you get guards pulling on you, fullbacks leading the way, double teams happening. They’re not used to that.
“We’re committed to the run. We’re kind of an anomaly. Take the academies and those option teams out of it, not many people want to run the ball like this now. It’s all about playing in space and quick passes. Our philosophy goes hand in hand with what Coach [Rocky] Long wants as a head coach. I’m not real smart, but I know when the head coach is a defensive coordinator the last thing I’m gonna do is spread it out and be off the field in 20–25 seconds after three incompletions and have him looking at me like, What the heck are you guys doing? I sell the kids on being in an NFL-style offense, and we still believe in time of possession. Talk to spread guys, they don’t care. We still believe in protecting the ball and controlling the football. I think we’re first in the nation over the last five years in turnovers gained. Time of possession is always gonna be top five or 10. I used to be a throw-it-around guy before my seven years at Wisconsin. I saw how we could beat the Ohio States and Michigans and Penn States by being more physical, controlling the football and giving yourself a chance to win in the fourth quarter and not trying to get into track meets with them because we don’t have all those kinds of athletes.”
Washington is excited for his turn as the face of a running game that boasts an impressive set of alumni, from Marshall Faulk to Pumphrey to Penny. “When Pump was leaving, he said, ‘Rashaad, it’s your turn. Go make plays.’ After the season, Rashaad told me after the bowl game, ‘Next year, you gotta step up and be the player everyone knows you can be.’ That meant a lot to me.”
The conditions are perfect for Washington and the Aztecs to get their moment in the national spotlight in 2018. The entire offensive line is back, with four sophomores and a junior set to start up front. A marquee game against Stanford and 2017 Heisman runner-up Bryce Love kicks off the season. If Washington delivers like folks inside the program expect, he could put up Heisman-worthy numbers of his own this fall, but his old teammate Penny has offered him some words of advice.
“Rashaad said no matter what, if you have a good season, it’s probably gonna get overlooked,” Washington says. “So don’t get caught up in that. I think that’s the best thing he taught me. Just play no matter what. You can’t do anything about stuff that is outside of the game. All you can give them is your best."