When you introduce yourself to Quinton Washington, a handshake is something of an impossibility — the nose tackle’s paws are so enormous that a normal-sized hand just gets swallowed.
Of course, his hands are just part of a body that itself is many times larger than the average 22-year-old’s. At 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, Washington has the ideal build for a space-eater in the middle of a defensive line.
In his redshirt junior season, having seized a starting spot for the first time in his career, Washington is beginning to put that sizable frame to use.
It was a surprise for most when Washington appeared atop the nose tackle depth chart before the season opener against Alabama. After last season, the Michigan coaching staff had slid defensive end Jibreel Black over to three-technique defensive tackle, and it was assumed that he and senior Will Campbell would man the two spots in the middle, with Campbell at nose tackle.
But Washington came on strong in camp. His emergence allowed Michigan coach Brady Hoke to put Campbell at the three-technique and insert Washington at the nose, giving him the type of bulk in the interior that Hoke deems necessary for the Big Ten.
Washington had big shoes to fill — he’s replacing Mike Martin, a four-year contributor who was voted the Wolverines’ top defensive lineman in each of the last three seasons before being drafted by the Tennessee Titans this year.
“I knew that I would have to work all offseason because Mike was gone,” Washington said. “I was the next person in line, and if I really wanted it I had to work. One thing with Coach Hoke, he’s not just going to give you the position. He’s going to make you work for it.
“It was a surprise when he put me in (at the top), but I just embraced it and ran with it.”
Hailing from St. Stephen, S.C., Washington arrived at Michigan as a touted recruit — a four-star offensive line recruit, according to Rivals.com. He was signed by former coach Rich Rodriguez in 2009 to play guard. There was even a thought that Washington would be able to step in and play right away, a rarity for offensive linemen.
It didn’t happen. After taking a redshirt his first season, Washington couldn’t crack the field in 2010 either, and halfway through that campaign, Rodriguez moved then-defensive tackle Campbell to the offensive line and switched Washington over to defense.
When Hoke arrived before last season, Campbell was moved back to his original position. Washington remained at defensive tackle, a position he didn’t play in high school. Despite his inexperience there, he was intrigued by the opportunity.
“It was really exciting to try something new,” Washington said. “Being an offensive lineman, it was coming along really slow, so it was kind of getting frustrating and I just wanted to try something new. It’s seemed to be a pretty good turnout.”
Still, Washington wasn’t exactly a natural at his new spot. The technique is completely different on either side of the line — offensive linemen try to get in close and drive the opponent, while defensive linemen try to extend their arms, lock out and shed the blocker — and Washington admitted he initially struggled with the switch.
It’s still a work in progress, but one much further along than when Washington made the switch two years ago. After a year spent behind Martin, Washington has the full focus of the defensive coaches, and three of them — Hoke, defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and line coach Jerry Montgomery — have experience coaching the defensive line.
The coaching attention has improved Washington’s technique, especially with his hands, by leaps and bounds since fall camp began.
But strength remains the nose tackle’s best attribute. If you ask his teammates, Washington’s power is apparently prodigious.
Campbell called him an “ox.” Senior defensive end Craig Roh called him a “beast.”
“(Against Illinois), he actually got in my way a little bit,” Roh said. “I’m having to deal with two guys, because he’s just throwing them over to me. He literally threw guys. That’s a 300-pound guy throwing 300-pound guys. It’s something pretty fun to see.”
“At first (the transition) was hard because of my hands, but one thing I did know how to do was just come off the ball,” Washington added with a wry smile.
Roh and Campbell both also commented on how much better Washington’s hands have been this season, and Hoke seemingly mentions Washington’s improvement every week.
This season, Washington’s technique has finally begun to work in concert with his natural strength. The combination has turned him into a solid player for Michigan’s defensive line — which, along with the defense as a whole, has been steadily improving since some early struggles.
“There’s times now where you see him play a block, and you go, ‘Boy, that’s perfect!’ ” Mattison said. “And like any player, now we have to do it play after play after play. … But Quinton has really worked hard. He’s bought into everything. I’m happy for him.”
With his natural talent, it appears Washington’s ceiling is as high as his hands will take him.
His strides, though, are evident, even off the field. After you finish your conversation with him and follow him to the exit, he stops to hold the door for you — his arm is fully extended, just as his coaches would want.