COLUMBIA, S.C. — This time last year, Pat Washington was hard at work in Columbia, Mo., breaking in an extremely young group of wide receivers.
Now he’s almost 1,000 miles east in a different Columbia working with a similarly young group of players, and he wears the proof of last season’s work every day.
“One good thing about it is this year I’m not worried about this no more,” Washington said as he pointed to his facial hair. “It’s gray. Last year, the gray took over. So I’m not looking in the mirror going, ‘Man, I’m getting gray.’ I’m done.”
The first-year South Carolina tight ends coach is faced with a challenge familiar to him after last season at Missouri. His room of tight ends consists entirely of sophomores and freshmen, although Washington does have Hayden Hurst, a sophomore who he joked is “90 years old” after playing minor league baseball for two years.
But the fact he has younger players learning a new offensive system — one that requires a lot more out of its tight ends — has done little to change the way Washington and his fellow offensive coaches approach getting the team ready for its season opener Sept. 1 at Vanderbilt.
“We are going to put it all out there,” Washington said. “Now, we’ve gotta be smart enough as coaches as we prepare for the first game to say, ‘OK, this is what they can and this is what they can’t do.’
“You want them out there playing fast and doing what they can do. As coaches, we’ve gotta be smart.”
Washington, who has spent much of his 28-year coaching career in the SEC, has seen his tight ends progressing each day through fall camp, but said everything — as would be expected this time of year — is a work in progress headed in the right direction.
Through the first two weeks of fall camp, Washington has seen plenty of competition between Hurst, sophomores Jacob August and K.C. Crosby, redshirt freshman Matthew Weigel and freshmen Evan Hinson, Kiel Pollard and Robert Tucker in battling for those five spots.
Washington has been pleased with the work of August, who dropped 10 pounds since last season, as he’s stepped up with Crosby sidelined until Sunday’s practices. Now with Crosby back, Washington sees a player “powerful enough to play on the line and swift enough to play outside.”
Washington also is excited about the future of the position with the three incoming freshmen — Pollard is considered likely to see the field as a true freshman.
Washington has seen growth in them all, going from an offense that didn’t ask much of its tight ends to one that puts significant responsibility on them.
“I remember the first couple days, we were a little confused,” Washington said. “Didn’t quite understand what we were asking of them, but then as we continued to go, they realized we could be a very important part of this offense and we can be anywhere in this offense and that’s a plus.
“If you’re able to play anywhere in this offense then you’re an asset. I think they are learning that and I think they are liking it.”
Hurst, the veteran of the group as a 22-year-old sophomore, said it has been fun working with Washington. Hurst credits Washington with helping polish his all-around game as a blocker as he moves back to tight end after a stint at wide receiver in 2015. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Jacksonville, Fla., native said the group has been answering the call with all it is being asked to do by co-offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.
“I think it’s just getting comfortable with the playbook,” Hurst said. “They ask a lot out of the tight ends in this offense. The more we get into our playbook and the more comfortable we are, I think the better chance we have.”
Washington is aiming to find five players he can have at his disposal each Saturday, with the yet-to-be-determined order of those five likely to be more defined following Saturday’s second fall scrimmage.
What he wants those players to be capable of is much more clear. It’s all about versatility as individual players and in the whole unit. Washington sees the players working off each other on the field in multiple-tight-end sets.
“We are going to be pretty versatile in what we do,” he said. “We will use two-tight-end sets because you can do a lot of things with those guys because they are athletic enough to be outside and inside.”
That ability has made an impression around the offense, as sophomore wide receiver Deebo Samuel noted the tight ends can be spread out wide and used to attack a defense.
“I feel like our tight ends are really receivers,” he said. “They really do the same things (receivers) do.”
Washington is charged with getting the young group ready for games in the next couple weeks. But as he does so, there’s a natural excitement from his players with the realization that they could be key pieces of the Gamecocks offense in 2016.
“Heck yeah — there’s no question they are very excited,” Washington said. “We just have to see how it is going to go, but right now, I think we are headed in the right direction.”
Mike Wilson covers South Carolina athletics for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on the Gamecocks.