Photo Credit: West Virginia Athletics
Keith Washington hasn’t always been the talented cornerback that West Virginia football fans know him as.
Before Washington was ever a cornerback, the 6-foot-2-inch athlete was a dual-threat quarterback at Prattville High School (Ala.). There, he dominated defenses both on the ground and through the air.
During Washington’s senior season, he helped lead Prattville to an 11-3 season while playing quarterback. Washington finished the season completing 57 percent of his passes for 1,718 yards and 17 touchdowns. On the ground, Washington contributed 1,201 yards and 20 touchdowns. Ranked as a 3-star athlete, Washington chose to play his college football at Michigan.
It was at Michigan where Washington switched to cornerback. Lining up out wide against receivers did not provide Washington with much difficulty in transitioning.
“It wasn’t as difficult as I thought would be. Of course, it was tough just learning the different techniques and different coverages from a standpoint of the defensive side,” Washington said. “But other than that, man, it just took me a couple of months to a year to perfect the corner, and I’m still working and getting better at it.”
Washington’s time in Ann Arbor, however, would be short-lived. After redshirting his freshman season, Washington saw most of his playing time on special teams as a redshirt freshman in 2016. In 2017, Washington transferred from Michigan just over a week before its season opener.
“It was a lot of factors. I felt like I was a (Division I) starter. I needed to go to another place to showcase my talents,” Washington said about the decision to transfer.
Junior College Route
For Washington, the switch was one most athletes have not taken. As a redshirt sophomore, Washington switched the bright lights of “The Big House” for the rural town of Wesson, Mississippi. That’s the home of JUCO program, Copiah-Lincoln. The switch provided a culture shock for Washington.
“It was definitely a humbling experience,” Washington explained. “Coming from a three-story house to essentially a little dorm room in junior college. It just humbled me and made me focus back in on football and put me back in the right mentality to get better.
In his lone season at Copiah-Lincoln, Washington finished with 14 unassisted tackles, two interceptions and five pass breakups. Washington’s play on the field ranked him as the ninth-best JUCO cornerback, according to 247Sports.
Despite holding offers to fellow Big 12 teams in Texas Tech and Kansas, Washington chose to commit to West Virginia.
“Coach [Doug] Belk and Coach Gibson came down, talked to me, recruited me. Told me that they really wanted me,” Washington said. “It was in the Big 12, a passing league, and I knew I had the opportunity to come in and start.”
While playing at West Virginia, it did not take long for Washington to make an impact.
With Texas Tech holding momentum in Washington’s first start for the Mountaineers, Washington came up with a big play in a critical situation. As Texas Tech quarterback Jett Duffey dropped back, Washington jammed the wide receiver inside and dropped into his zone. As Duffy threw it, Washington leaped and intercepted the pass. After making Duffey miss on a tackle attempt, Washington walked into the end zone for a 51-yard touchdown.
“Late in the game, we had a lead. They picked up some momentum in the second half,” Washington said about the interception. “It was a cover 2 scheme. Seen the quarterback throw the ball, just jumped up, did what I naturally do best. Took it to the house and the rest is history.”
Over the course of 2018, Washington was highly effective for the Mountaineers’ defense. In 12 games, Washington finished the season with 40 total tackles, two interceptions, and nine pass breakups. Washington’s strong play earned him an All-Big 12 honorable mention designation as a defensive back.
“It was just the foot in the door for me pretty much. First year kind of playing on the defensive side, starting as a DI player. Kind of gave me a feel for how the game goes,” Washington said about his 2018 season. “And I just took that as a learning experience and used that to boost my career.”
¡Keith Washington Jr.! El DB Junior (que estuvo en Michigan) sentenció el partido y congeló al público del Jones AT&T Stadium con su Pick-6. Resultado final: TTU 34, WVU 42. Vaya partidazo se ha hecho Keith Washington hoy (entre otros). #HailWV #WreckEmpic.twitter.com/jNSaXX6cTG
— Néstor Con Tilde (@NestorConTilde) September 29, 2018
In 2019, Washington would improve his overall play. Despite only starting 10 games because of a lower body injury that held him out for two games, Washington finished his senior season with 23 tackles, three interceptions, and 12 pass breakups. At the end of the season, Washington earned All-Big 12 second-team honors.
“I was way more comfortable. I felt more comfortable out there on the field. Switching from a cover 3 defense to running basically quarters, a cover 4 scheme, allowed me to make a lot more plays on the ball,” Washington said. “It was just a great season for me. I’m kind of sad that I missed a couple games because of injury but other than that, I loved 2019.”
Big 12 Competition
Playing in the Big 12 can be a daunting task for any cornerback. Not only are you tasked with playing against schemes predicated towards throwing the ball, but the quarterbacks and wide receivers are often among the top in the nation in terms of talent.
In Washington’s first season alone, he was tasked with attempting to stop the high-level passing attack of Oklahoma, which featured Kyler Murray, that year’s Heisman Trophy winner, and a deep wide receiver room. Washington would also match up against Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma State, who all had strong wide receivers.
“Every week, you’re going up against top-notch quarterbacks, Heisman candidates, and some of the best receivers in the country,” Washington said about playing in the Big 12. “There isn’t like a week where you can slack off versus any team because any team has guys that can go, athletic, big, strong and fast. So, you just got to come with your A-game every week.”
For Washington, his toughest match-up was Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace. The Cowboys’ star has 2,512 career receiving yards and 20 receiving touchdowns heading into his senior season.
“Man, I went up against a lot of good receivers, from [Former Oklahoma WR Marquise] “Hollywood” Brown [to Baylor WR] Denzel Mims,” Washington explained. “But a guy that stood out to me personally was Tylan Wallace, kid from Oklahoma State. He just blocked hard, ran great routes and just had a ‘dog’ mentality.”
Despite the challenges that playing in the Big 12 represents, Washington believed that playing in the conference made him more prepared for the NFL level.
“It’s a passing league, so every week, like I said, you line up against the best of the best, especially at receiver. Tall guys, small, fast guys and I think that will help me transition into the league,” Washington said. “Of course, every week, everybody is a professional, so you need that experience.”
NFL Draft Prep
In January, Washington was invited to the East-West Shrine Game, an annual showcase game that takes place in St. Petersburg, Florida. While at the Shrine Game, Washington was able to showcase his talents to NFL scouts, as well as officially meet with those teams.
“It was great. You know, it was everyone out there from coaches to (general managers),” Washington explained. “You got to learn, get a little snippet of what it’s like to be in the NFL and how the offenses and defenses are ran in the league and just showcase your talents in front of everybody.”
Despite the spread of the coronavirus, forcing the cancellation of West Virginia’s Pro Day, Washington has maintained ways to stay in shape. To make up for the lost Pro Day showcase, Washington filmed a private pro day to showcase to NFL teams.
— Keith Washington (@kwashingtonii) March 31, 2020
“I just went and worked out at the gym down the street from my house. Then, when that got closed, I just set up my little weights in my garage,” Washington explained. “I’m out here on the field with some former teammates of mine from high school and we just bring bands and sleds and get it in on the field.”