By Eric D. Williams The News Tribune
RENTON — Leon Washington relishes a return to his old ways, when he sliced and diced his way through a wave of defenders for game-winning scores.
Two years ago, the Florida State University product returned three kickoffs for touchdowns, including two against San Diego that sealed a win against the Chargers.
He earned Associated Press Second Team All-Pro honors for his effort, and was named a Pro Bowl alternate in 2010.
Washington’s exploits also led to a four-year, $12.5 million new deal with the Seattle Seahawks during that offseason.
However, the NFL’s decision to move kickoffs five yards up last season resulted in Washington routinely fielding the ball in the end zone, which disrupted the timing of returns for Seattle.
Washington failed to get into the end zone on a kick or punt return in 2011, although he had an 81-yard punt return for a score that would have won the game against Cleveland called back because of an illegal block in the back penalty.
Washington’s yards per return remained virtually the same from 2010 (25.6 yards per kick return, 11.3 yards per punt return compared to his last year — 25.2 yard per kick return and 11.2 yards per punt return.
But asked by a fan at training camp on Friday how many times he’ll get into the end zone in 2012, Washington raised four fingers up, which means he’s looking to create more explosive plays this season.
“One thing we looked at when it came to the return part of the game, especially when it came to kick returns, is we only had about five less returns than the previous year,” said Washington, who turns 30 years old this month. “So the opportunities are still there for us to go out there and make plays.”
It’s special teams coach Brian Schneider’s job is to figure out how to create more opportunities for the explosive playmaker. Schneider said the new rule change last year resulted in about 700 less kickoff returns in 2011 compared to 2010 around the league, but there are still times during the game where Seattle will risk returning a kick out of the end zone.
Schneider pointed to two things that needed to be fixed heading into the regular season this season — creating better timing between Washington catching the ball and hitting the first wave of blockers at the right time, and limiting costly penalties on big returns.
“We’re really working on the spacing and the timing,” Schneider said. “The kicks are going deeper, so at times we’re going to take more out. So we just need to change the separation of the spacing of the wedge and Leon. We’re just going deeper (toward the end zone) than we have in the past.”
Schneider said when the Seahawks got a penalty on a punt return it cost the team about 28 yards in hidden yardage
“We had too many penalties,” Schneider said. “That’s a big focus for us this year. We know what the issues are, and we’re addressing that. I think if we can just clean up the penalty yards it’s going to create a short field for us.”
Added Seattle head coach Pete Carroll: “Leon is going to do his thing, so we have to do ours to make him more of a factor.”
The highlight throws were there on Friday for Seattle Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson.
Specifically, Wilson hit Golden Tate on a pretty deep ball for a chunk play in team drills, and also twice connected with Ben Obomanu for big gains on the final drive of practice — his best drive of the day.
However, in between Wilson threw high a lot and took a couple unnecessary sacks that led to an uneven performance with the starting unit.
Wilson took the majority of the snaps on Friday, finishing out a cycle of all three quarterbacks getting two chances over the first six days to work exclusively with the starter. Incumbent Tarvaris Jackson worked with the second unit and Matt Flynn worked with the third group.
Jackson is expected to work with the first unit again today, and the Seahawks have a controlled scrimmage scheduled for Sunday.
Wilson understands that he has a long ways to go, but overall was pleased with his performance.
“I thought we did a great job on offense today,” Wilson said. “The defense did a good job, too. It was a good day because we got to change the ball and move the field a little bit more than normal. We got to play more football, and real live type practicing.”
Part of Wilson’s growth process is the meticulous notes he takes off the field chronicling his play. Along with the iPad each player receives with a playbook loaded onto it, Wilson said he has three notebooks that he pours through daily and uses as a study guide away from the practice field — one each for pass plays, run plays and protections.
“My goal is to have great attention to detail every single time I step onto the field,” Wilson said. “And also have great attention to detail in the film room. And so I’m taking tons and tons of notes — I’ve always taken a lot of notes, but I’m doing that even more now playing in the National Football League.”
Rookie middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (quad) did not practice on Friday, so veteran Barrett Ruud got his first chance to work with the first unit. Along with Wagner, WR Antonio Bryant, LB Matt McCoy (knee), LB Jameson Konz (shoulder), TE Anthony McCoy (hamstring) and WR Doug Baldwin (leg) did not practice. Deon Butler worked with the first unit in the slot with Baldwin out. CB Walter Thurmond (leg) and OL James Carpenter (knee) remain on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. DL Clinton McDonald had his right hand taped in a protective club, but still practiced. … Seattle cornerback Marcus Trufant’s youngest brother, University of Washington product Desmond Trufant, attended Seahawks practice on Friday.