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Tailback New

Times Staff Writer

No more watching.

No more waiting.

That’s what Chauncey Washington was hoping, anyway.

Washington spent two years on the outside looking in as LenDale White and Reggie Bush, USC’s “Thunder and Lightning” backfield, stormed through college football, helping the Trojans win two national titles and nearly a third.

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Meanwhile, Washington, a heralded member of the same recruiting class, coped with a difficult family situation, learning disabilities and immaturity that left him academically ineligible two consecutive years.

More than critics chiding him, Washington said he hurt most from “watching LenDale and Reggie play and be out there doing things they do, helping us win.”

Bush, the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner, was picked second overall in the NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints. The Tennessee Titans chose White in the second round.

Washington, 21, hopes to follow his former teammates into professional football, but first he is determined to make his mark for the Trojans.

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And graduate.

A fourth-year junior, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Washington began training camp as the No. 1 tailback, who was expected to carry the load as the Trojans brought along freshmen Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable and Emmanuel Moody.

Washington’s chiseled physique, speed and powerful running style make him something of a cross between Bush and White. As the oldest in a position group of mostly first- and second-year players, he is regarded as a potential lead back for a Trojan offense breaking in a new quarterback.

“There were two or three different times where you could have said he’s out the door and forget about it,” Coach Pete Carroll said of Washington. “But his family stood by him and we stood by him and the academic assistance program all stood by him.

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“And he finally got to the right mind-set to take over.”

When USC opens its season Sept. 2 at Arkansas, Washington hopes to play for the first time since Nov. 1, 2003, when he aggravated an ankle injury while covering a kickoff against Washington State.

The nearly three-year layoff was not apparent through the first four days of training camp.

“I don’t believe the game has changed or I have lost any of my instincts,” he said.

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But Washington strained his left hamstring Monday and has not practiced since. He strained the same muscle a few weeks before camp opened. Carroll said Friday that the running back might not return until the middle of next week and that Washington must be eased back into playing shape.

“I’ve been waiting two years to do this -- if I push it and try to come back too soon, then I’m going to be nagged with it the whole season,” Washington said. “So why not take the time and make sure I’m doing everything right, make sure that I’m strong enough, so when I get back I won’t have any setbacks and just go at it.”

After he ran for more than 5,000 yards at South Torrance High, some expected that Washington might star over Bush or White when the three backs arrived in 2003.

“When we started camp, I remember all the hype was around Chauncey,” recalled senior center Ryan Kalil, who came in the same year.

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Bush’s once-in-a-generation speed was apparent from the outset. So was White’s rumbling style. But Washington’s burst and aggressiveness caught the coaches’ eye.

Hershel Dennis started at running back for USC in its 2003 opener at Auburn, carrying 21 times for 85 yards and a touchdown. Bush and White ran the ball in the first half and each finished with five carries, Bush for nine yards and White for six. Washington played on special teams and got three carries in the fourth quarter -- but he gained 24 yards.

“I was like, ‘Oh man, this is easy. This is it? This is college?’ ” Washington said.

It got tougher.

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Washington sprained his ankle two games later against Hawaii, the first of what would become a series of college-related setbacks for a young man accustomed to adversity.

Washington grew up as the only boy among eight siblings. His father, Charles, raised the children alone after their mother left home when Chauncey was 5. The large family moved many times, staying mainly in South Bay cities such as Carson and Torrance.

During Washington’s Pop Warner football days, Brian and Paula Dean and their two sons befriended him. For high school, Washington moved in with the Deans and attended South Torrance.

Washington’s high school career was not without controversy. During his sophomore season in 2000, the father and uncle of another player assaulted South Torrance’s coach on the field after a game because Washington had the bulk of the carries. The incident drew national attention. Washington was suspended from school in the final semester of his senior year after getting into a fight with a soccer teammate.

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USC offered a chance for a fresh start, but the adjustment to college life was not easy for Washington, especially with his family a short drive away. During his freshman season, Washington’s roommates rarely saw him. He continually left campus and returned home to help look after his sisters.

“It’s a big part for my father because he’s taking care of them by himself,” Washington said. “He wanted me to stay at school, but I couldn’t. It’s my family. Family comes first.”

Washington’s grades predictably suffered. After he was declared ineligible for the 2004 season, he expected Carroll’s wrath.

“But he was real calm and he said I should stay positive,” Washington said.

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That proved difficult, especially with his friends White and Bush flourishing. The Trojans completed an unbeaten season and demolished Oklahoma to win the Bowl Championship Series title.

Washington said he tried to apply himself in the classroom and refrained from going home as often. He participated in 2005 spring practice but again fell short of qualifying academically.

“That’s when he hit the bottom of the barrel,” his father said.

Carroll had been patient the first time. Now Washington expected a rant.

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“He just said, ‘Try again. The third time is the charm,’ ” Washington said.

Washington explored details of transferring to a junior college or another university. Carroll even signed paperwork releasing him in June 2005.

But Washington considered only two options.

“It was either stay, or go to the NFL,” he said.

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Charles Washington counseled his son against leaving USC, despite Chauncey’s not being on scholarship for the 2005-06 academic year. Charles applied for financial aid and loans to pay for his son’s tuition.

Washington completed the first semester but was not eligible for spring practice. In January, when Bush, White and other draft-eligible players were considering their options, Charles Washington told his son to put off pro plans.

“I told him, ‘No, no, no. You’re making the wrong move. Stay in school,’ ” Charles said.

Magdi El Shahawy, USC’s associate athletic director for student-athlete academic services, said Washington’s turnaround began at the start of the spring semester, when he finally acknowledged and overcame embarrassment about learning disabilities that complicated reading comprehension and made it difficult to process information in large classroom settings.

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He also began to fully take advantage of tutoring and academic support available to all athletes.

“He’s a sweet kid and everyone likes Chauncey, but we just couldn’t do it for him. He had to do it for himself,” El Shahawy said.

In May, shortly after the spring semester ended, Washington learned that he was eligible to return to the field this fall.

“Once he got low enough and he had time to mature and grow older and take a new look at it and from a mature perspective, what his opportunity meant, he turned it around,” Carroll said.

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Washington is grateful that Carroll and his teammates stood by him, that his father and the Deans supported and encouraged him and that El Shahawy and the academic support staff at USC did not give up on him.

Charles Washington could not be prouder.

“I’m in tears thinking about it because he worked so hard,” he said. “He’s a man of his word. He didn’t run from the problem. He said he would stick it out and he did.”

*

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

In the running

By class, USC candidates for playing time at running back (*denotes a redshirt year used):

PLAYER: CHAUNCEY WASHINGTON

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HT: 6-1

WT: 220

CLASS: *Junior

GARY KLEIN’S TAKE: Cross between Reggie Bush and LenDale White is eligible for first time since 2003.

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--

PLAYER: MICHAEL COLEMAN

HT: 6-1

WT: 230

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CLASS: Sophomore

GARY KLEIN’S TAKE: Appears to be near full speed after missing spring practice because of hip surgery.

--

PLAYER: C.J. GABLE

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HT: 6-1

WT: 190

CLASS: Freshman

GARY KLEIN’S TAKE: Has been the most consistent downhill runner through training camp.

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--

PLAYER: STAFON JOHNSON

HT: 6-1

WT: 210

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CLASS: Freshman

GARY KLEIN’S TAKE: Shifty moves behind the line, gained 119 yards in scrimmage.

--

PLAYER: EMMANUEL MOODY

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HT: 6-1

WT: 195

CLASS: Freshman

GARY KLEIN’S TAKE: Fresh. Speedy Texan has shown moves and flashes of breakaway speed.

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Los Angeles Times


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