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12/4/21 - Atlanta - Georgia Bulldogs tight end Darnell Washington (0) scores Georgia's first touchdown in the second quarter of the SEC Championship football game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Darnell Washington pairing ‘role player’ mentality with superstar talent at Georgia

ATHENS — Darnell Washington has the look of a superstar when healthy enough to play, and yet, the jumbo Georgia tight end considers himself a role player.

“I just play my role,” said Washington, a 6-foot-7, 265-pound former 5-star prospect from Las Vegas.

“If my role is to block, I’ll block. I’m a role player.”

Washington has averaged a gaudy 18.8 yards per catch through his first two seasons, even as injuries have limited him to 17 catches for 320 yards in the 21 games he has appeared.

Washington missed the first four games of last season with a foot injury, and he’s back in a protective boot and sidelined now after suffering a lower-body injury prior to spring drills.

“The biggest factor is staying locked in, because I’m not out there,” said Washington, who’s limited to taking in signals and going through mental reps from the sideline.

Sitting out games and being limited last season was a challenge, too.

Freshman Brock Bowers had the sort of breakout season many have anticipated for Washington since he arrived on campus, earning All-American honors while catching a school-record 13 touchdowns among his 56 receptions.

“I’m happy for my whole team and the tight end group, especially, but it was rough, a bit,” Washington admitted while doing his first media interview with the team following practice on Thursday. “But my role at that time was cheering on my team, Brock or Stetson, or whoever that might be.”

Washington says he has embraced the addition of LSU transfer and fellow former 5-star recruit Arik Gilbert.

Gilbert, who at 6-5, 248, appears almost as imposing as Washington, is back with the team after sitting out last fall dealing with personal issues.

Washington said he and Gilbert have gotten to know one another much better in high school, and he has picked him up for morning workouts.

The thought of Georgia having Bowers along with Washington and Gilbert on the field at the same time would give any defensive coordinator matchup nightmares.

But are there enough footballs to go around, in terms of targets for potential receptions?

“I believe so,” Washington said. “It’s just something I have to come back off the injury and work like Brock and Arik and everyone else in the tight end room. We’re all working.”

The tight ends can’t control the amount of passes they get, but they can control how physical they play, and Washington explained that’s the priority.

“One thing with (Todd) Hartley, he’s a coach, he’s all about being physical,” Washington said. “He doesn’t care if we catch 100 balls, as long as we’re physical and dominant at the point of attack. That’s what he cares about, winning the one-on-one blocks.”

Washington is the first to admit, that’s an area where he’s had to improve to fit in on a Kirby Smart-coached Georgia team.

“You go back to my high school film, I didn’t block, I was a receiver,” Washington said. “When I came here, I’d never blocked against a guy like Travon (Walker) …. or a guy like Azeez (Ojulari).

“My mindset flipped from high school, where I want to be physical at the point of attack.”

Washington said all it took was one game at the college level to figure out things had to change.

“My first game here, my first time blocking somebody, it wasn’t really pretty,” Washington said. " I was like, I have to flip the switch. My want-to got bigger, my why got bigger, and things like that.”

Indeed, and “things like that” will have NFL teams taking a close look at Washington at the end of the 2022 season provided the big man can stay healthy.

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