Citadel’s Washington shines on defense

The Citadel’s Quinlan Washington runs for a 72-yard touchdown after an interception against VMI during a 35-14 win on Saturday.

Quinlan Washington played receiver and quarterback in high school, signed with The Citadel as a running back in 2014 and was switched to defense last spring.

But after a breakout performance in the Bulldogs’ 35-14 win over VMI last week, it’s safe to say that the versatile Washington has found a home at perhaps the most demanding position in The Citadel’s defense — bandit linebacker.

Washington, 6-0 and 201 pounds, intercepted two passes against VMI, returning one of them 72 yards for a touchdown. He also made a career-best four tackles, including a perfectly timed blitz that resulted in a sack and fumble and quelled a comeback attempt by the Keydets.

The redshirt freshman was named the Southern Conference defensive player of the week, and the win over VMI helped secure a share of the SoCon championship for the Bulldogs, their first since 1992. The Citadel, ranked No. 20 in FCS, can clinch an outright title and automatic bid to the FCS playoffs with a win Saturday at No. 9 Chattanooga.

Those types of big defensive plays are what Citadel coach Mike Houston envisioned when he watched film of Washington playing quarterback and receiver for Bucholz High School in Gainesville, Fla.

“He’s a great athlete, and that’s why we recruited him to play slotback originally,” Houston said. “But when I saw him on film, I said then that he’d be a great safety. He was on our scout team offense last year, but he always looked like a safety to me, and I harassed (offensive coordinator) Brent Thompson by saying, ‘You better be careful or he will end up on defense.’ ”

That day came last spring, when depth at bandit linebacker became an issue. With a surfeit of slotbacks, Washington was a natural candidate to make the move.

“I had heard the coaches talking about it,” said Washington. “So I already had it in my mind.”

In the scheme run by Houston and defensive coordinator Maurice Drayton, the bandit linebacker is a hybrid position, combining the skills of a defensive back with the heft of a linebacker. Junior Dondray Copeland (6-2, 213) has started at bandit this season; he’s fifth on the team with 54 tackles, and has three interceptions.

“It takes a special athlete to play bandit, when you look at everything we ask him to do,” Houston said. “Man coverage, zone coverage, he blitzes, plays on the line of scrimmage, off the line, the plays in the box and out in space. You need somebody with the agility of a secondary player and the frame of a box player.”

In recent weeks, Washington has been pushing Copeland for playing time. He’s got 13 tackles now, with a sack and those two picks against VMI.

“To me, we have two starters there,” Houston said. “They are both quality players, and that’s really a luxury to have at that position.”

Washington’s contributions are not limited to defense, either. He’s the rare combination of linebacker and kick returner, averaging 23 yards per kickoff return with a long return of 41 yards. The linebacker is actually sixth on the team in all-purpose yards with 413 this season, 322 on kickoff returns and 91 on interception returns.

That’s no surprise to Houston.

“Two days into it last spring, you knew right then that not only would he be okay, he’d be very good,” the coach said. “And he’s not anywhere close to being developed yet.”

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