AUBURN, Ala. — An invisible rope appeared to trip up Auburn’s Demond Washington on his first two kickoffs at Ole Miss, with nothing but green artificial turf and a helpless kicker separating him from the end zone.
“It was there. I couldn’t stay on my feet,” Washington said. “I wish a million times that I could go back to that play, but I can’t.”
The senior made up for it on his next return, bursting through a seam for a 95-yard touchdown that put Auburn up two touchdowns on its way to a 51-31 win.
Washington, who energized the Tigers’ kick return game almost a year ago with a 99-yarder against Georgia, seems well on his way to doing it again.
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“He was a force in the return game last year toward the end of the year,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “We’re hoping that he’s kind of getting back into that mode now.”
With at least four games remaining, Washington has already broken Tristan Davis’ four-year-old school record for kick return yards in a season with 806.
But prior to Saturday he didn’t have a defining return on his highlight reel, tripped up while a step or two away from breaking free on more than one occasion.
“Eventually I was going to break one,” Washington said. “I did, and I know there are going to be some more to come before the end of the year.”
If that’s the case, Auburn opponents will think twice about kicking it deep. The Tigers rank fourth nationally, averaging 26.89 yards per kickoff return.
Onterio McCalebb, the other primary returner, took one back 99 yards against LSU, getting tripped up at the 1-yard line. Washington hasn’t let his teammate forget about it.
“I harass Onterio all the time: ‘If it had been me, it would have been a touchdown,’” he said, laughing. “If they’re going to kick it away from me, he’s a threat to take it back. And if you kick it to me, it’s a threat.”
Washington’s return wasn’t his only contribution Saturday. The cornerback also intercepted a pass at Auburn’s 2-yard line in the second quarter when the game was still in doubt.
Ole Miss went after the 5-foot-9 Washington with fade patterns on two straight plays. He out-jumped the receiver for an underthrown ball on the second one for his second pick this year.
“Demond wants the challenges,” Chizik said. “He likes to be challenged. That’s why he’s so good on kickoffs. He’s a competitor. He wants the ball. He wants you to throw at him.”
Only now are his cornerback skills catching up to that gusto. Before transferring to Auburn in 2009, he played two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Junior College, the first on defense, the second on offense, where he stood out at Tallassee (Ala.) High.
His first year on the Plains, he was strictly defense but moved around, starting out as a nickel cornerback and finishing up as a safety in a patched-together secondary.
Speed was never a concern for Washington, but his technique, specifically his footwork and ability to make a play on the ball, has been a work in progress.
Case in point: the touchdown he gave up in the first quarter when Rebels receiver Markeith Summers made a better play on the ball in the end zone on a 29-yard pass.
“I had to redeem myself because I felt like I let the team down,” Washington said.
Six tackles, an interception and a kick return for a touchdown later, he had.
Auburn hopes it is merely a prelude. With Georgia’s A.J. Green and Alabama’s Julio Jones still on the schedule, the Tigers need Washington to be on his game more than ever.
“We have some unbelievable challenges for him in the next three weeks,” Chizik said. “His game needs to be at its best here as we move forward.”