ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Throw Keith Washington into a situation and watch him adapt and adjust.
That’s pretty much how the soon-to-be-third-year Michigan defensive back approaches everything — always up for something new, always interested in broadening skills and outlooks.
Always about self-improvement.
After last Saturday’s spring game, the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Washington, a redshirt freshman last season, tossed his name into consideration for the two-deep depth chart.
One year ago, he was buried behind an All-American and All-Big Ten star, seeing action during nine games as a special-teamer. But now it’s his turn to fight for a spot in the secondary. And his game has grown.
After a spring-football-concluding visit to Rome — a week-plus stay for academic and athletic purposes — he’ll hop aboard a plane in Detroit, bound for South America, where he’ll spend nearly all of May studying abroad in Argentina.
He’s never flown across an ocean. Figuratively, and literally, his career — and life — is on the verge of taking off.
While at Prattville High School in Alabama, Washington excelled as a star quarterback — nothing short of a natural position for someone with similar quick instincts and speed. As a result, several prominent and regional schools recruited him for such duties.
However, because of his overall athleticism, not to mention interest from Michigan, talk eventually turned toward the direction cornerback.
“He was fine with it,” said Keith Washington Sr., Keith’s father and former D-line volunteer at Prattville. “It was Michigan!… It was Michigan!…”
Keith just wanted to show he could play, his father said. Position didn’t matter much, although some questioned the switch from offense to defense, quarterback to defensive back.
It was all uncharted territory. How would he navigate?
The school didn’t matter, either — although several also questioned his decision to head north rather than staying in the South. He could have picked Miami (Fla.), TCU, Louisville, Rice or even close-to-home University of Alabama-Birmingham.
Something familiar and comfortable. Something predictable.
Not something unfamiliar and hundreds of miles from home.
“People would ask him ‘Why Michigan?'” his father said. “‘It’s so cold up there,’ they said.”
Yes, Michigan can get a bit frigid during the winter, which seems to last for seven months. Yes, its weather can be fickle beyond belief, even during the “nice” seasons. So imagine the thoughts of an Alabama kid who’s never encountered the snowflakes-and-coats-in-the-morning to balmy-and-shorts-in-the-afternoon mood swings of Mother Nature.
But the younger Washington had a simple and logical reply to the “what about the weather?” crowd.
“He said, ‘What happens if you get drafted by a team in a cold city? Are you going to tell them you’re not going to go?'” his father said, laughing.
Opportunities don’t present themselves every day. Though far from home, Washington simply couldn’t pass on the chance to play for head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Vying for playing time
Despite the departures of All-American Jourdan Lewis and All-Big Ten honoree Channing Stribling, Michigan won’t be handing out starting jobs this fall. The “meritocracy,” coined by Harbaugh, has produced incredibly heated scrums throughout the course of 13 spring practices.
Every rep counts.
Every rep is monitored.
With that said, Washington knows that nothing will be guaranteed — even if he finishes spring on a high note.
In order to see the field on Saturdays, he’ll have to out-work a massive haul of corners, coached by Mike Zordich, throughout the offseason and through late summer, all the way until the day before the Wolverines open their season Sept. 2 versus Florida at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“I talked to Coach Z, and he said ‘Keith’s a competitor,'” said Keith’s father, relaying a recent phone call.
But is he rough-and-tough/in-your-face?
On the surface, that doesn’t appear to be his style. According to his father, Washington has been “calm, cool and collected since he was a baby.”
But don’t push him, especially on the field.
He has a switch that takes a split-second to flip, from cool Keith to heated Keith. During the call, Zordich noted that mean streak, joking with Keith Sr. about how others have steered clear of “messing with Keith” during practice.
Eventually, Zordich expects that edge to further translate to in-game reps.
During the past two years, this spring, in particular, Washington has upped his level of self-criticism and aggression — the perfectionist that lies within has taken control of all decision making.
Nothing is good enough until it’s good enough, a trait and behavior that hasn’t gone unnoticed by coaches.
“Keith has always been hard on himself,” Zordich said a few days after the spring game. “Keith is a competitor, and that’s one thing I like about Keith. He works his tail off…”
Don’t discount the position swap, either. That’s a critical element of the process.
“We brought him over and said ‘Hey, we’re going to make you cornerback in a system that plays press-man 90 percent of the time,’ so it’s not an easy thing to do,” Zordich said. “It’s a tough technique to learn, and that’s what he’s trying to do.
“I think he’s doing it very well. I thought he had a heck of a game Saturday; he played real well, was really aggressive and had some nice tackles. He’s come along really well.”
An “eye-in-the-sky” approach has allowed Zordich to further critique and examine Washington’s developing characteristics and tendencies. Through a steady diet of rewind, pause, fast-forward and repeat, Zordich has identified several positive areas and several areas in need of attention.
Washington has been right there, asking for honest feedback.
“In my experience, most of the guys who are hard on themselves, in the circles I’ve been around, they get better,” Zordich said. “I think Saturday, he got better. I think (at practice Tuesday), he was a little dinged-up and he practiced the whole practice … for three-and-a-half hours, so that says a lot.”
The grinding efforts and extended waiting period have been beneficial, Washington said. Despite not seeing the field as a corner, he was able to gather valuable intelligence from Lewis and Stribling, two of the highest-rated cover men in the upcoming NFL Draft.
“Well, you know, you just pick up a lot of little things from watching them in-game, at practice,” Washington said. “They mainly just told me to ‘play your game.’ But at the same time, it’s also just the little things when you’re playing corner — eye control, moving your feet, just knowing when and getting a feel for the route patterns and certain things like that.”
Back in 2016, Stribling instructed media to pay attention to Washington this season, as noted by Angelique Chengelis of the Detroit News.
Since then, quarterback Wilton Speight has spoken highly of Washington, as have other teammates. Is Washington really an under-the-radar potential star?
“Well, I guess people have got to wait until the fall and see,” he said with a grin. “But I’ll let everybody know that I’m working, working every day and trying to get better. And hopefully that can continue and do great things for the team in the fall.”
They’re not globetrotters by any means, but the Washington family — Keith Jr., Keith Sr., wife Candice and sister Kacie — have done a bit of traveling over the years. They have family in New York. They’ve made some stops along the Eastern seaboard and to California.
And, of course, they’ve traversed the corners of Alabama and the rest of the South.
But they’re not exactly hopping on flights to historic and/or exotic locations all of the time. With that said, culture has always been important to the Washington family. If a trip wasn’t possible, learning about another way of living was always encouraged.
Keith enjoyed learning, so it came as no surprise when he told his family that he’d be joining other UM students in Buenos Aires.
“We were perfectly fine with it,” said Keith Sr., who, in the early 2000s, played defensive end for the Barcelona Dragons of NFL Europe. Because of his experience in Spain, he also encouraged Keith to spread his wings.
“We loved it,” he said.
Coincidentally enough, Keith could have chosen an available course set in Barcelona — but the thought of studying in Argentina was, again, something new and unfamiliar.
Plus, he likes soccer.
And Buenos Aires is known for futbol.
“He plays FIFA (the video game) with some guys from the team for hours over the weekend,” his father said.
Washington — a self-proclaimed “big soccer fan” and admirer of the legendary Lionel Messi — also played the game as a child. During Tuesday’s media availability, he brushed off those days, not offering too much background on his brief, yet promising, youth career that prompted choosing Buenos Aires.
But his father was more than happy to elaborate on the long-term love affair.
Around age 3, Washington experienced a “big growth spurt.”
Yeah, at age 3. Soon he began playing in community leagues.
“He could run like a deer,” his dad said. “He was right there, right there with them.”
Who were they?
Seven- and 8-year-olds.
And Keith was nearly the same height, size and weight.
“You put him in anything, and he’ll work,” his dad said.
Keith couldn’t really communicate with the older kids … because he was a toddler and had a limited vocabulary. But he found ways to get around the hurdles.
“He’s not afraid,” his father said.
He’s never flown for hours upon hours thousands of feet above the Atlantic. But he’ll do that on the way to and from Rome. He’s never flown over the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico. But he’ll do that on his way to and from South America.
He’s never played cornerback at the collegiate level, either.
Everything is new for Keith Washington.
But he’s ready for the ride.
“Honestly, I never even thought about going overseas at all,” Washington said. “This is a new experience. I’m excited and look forward to it.”