ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Midway through the second quarter of Samford's upset bid against the Florida Gators, do-it-all receiver Montrell Washington fielded a kickoff at the 2-yard line and proceeded to run into a mass of humanity, blue jerseys swarming toward him.
They were some of the best players in the country, highly recruited athletes drawn to one of the SEC's premier programs. The 5-foot-10 Washington, meanwhile, had received offers from Samford, Kennesaw State, Valdosta State and Wingate before choosing the Bulldogs.
He danced through one gap and then another, and then he accelerated through a lane that opened up, defenders giving chase. Around midfield, Washington hit his stride and began increasing the separation between him and his pursuers.
As Washington neared the goal line, the outcome became inevitable, and the sprinter celebrated by leaning across the line.
"I just feel like I'm on a track sometimes," Washington said Saturday. "Once I get to the finish line, I break the tape."
When the Broncos selected Washington in the fifth round with the 162nd overall pick, it was probably that moment that stuck in their collective mind. He tallied 322 all-purpose yards (179 returning, 124 receiving, 19 rushing) and three touchdowns, and even though Samford couldn't pull off the win, Washington must have opened some scouts' eyes.
The Broncos were in contact with him, Washington said — he recalled meeting with someone at his pro day — and yet, he was surprised when he got the call from General Manager George Paton and the Broncos. He said he'd been watching, but he said he "wasn't even worried" about being drafted because he figured he wasn't going to be picked.
"To be honest, I wanted to cry but I couldn't," Washington said. "I was shocked to be honest with you, because coming from Samford — FCS — guys sleep on the conference. But we ball just like everybody else. I'm excited. I'm lost for words. I'm shaking kind of still. I'm just glad to have this opportunity. I'm going to make the most of it for sure."
Washington said he thinks it's unlikely that he would have made it to this point without his performance in the Florida game, and the Broncos are hoping that he'll be able to recreate those kinds of feats in the NFL.
There's good reason to believe that could be case; Washington returned three punts or kicks for touchdowns in 2021.
"To be back there and catch those punts, catch those kickoffs and have all of those guys running down at you — it's a very unique talent," Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett said. "It's hard to find guys like that. I think that's something that having experience on special teams in my past and knowing [Special Teams] Coach [Dwayne] Stukes, that was just so critical for our team to find somebody that can bring that."
The search for a return specialist will bring an open competition during the offseason. But the Broncos said they won't be limiting him to just that role.
"We just thought he had some dynamic traits as a return man — as a receiver as well," Paton said. "He's a slot receiver. He's really good with the ball in his hands. He has incredible ball skills. As a punt returner, as a kick returner, Coach Stukes thought he would be our guy. We'll see. He has to go earn it. He has some dynamic traits that you can't teach. We feel he will upgrade us there."
As a player who watched the classic highlight reels that Devin Hester produced during his career, Washington wants to create those game-breaking plays in the NFL, to "do my job as a return man and flip the field."
"There's nothing like that feeling because — yeah, I scored, but in my opinion, I don't score; my team scores," Washington said. "The guys that block for me have to block. They have to risk their body to make just a block. Small things — some guys look over that. Me as a returner, that means the most to me. If they make big blocks, that means I have to score. If they make a great block, I have to score. It's my job to pull if it's their job to block. If they're doing the hard work, my job should be easy. All I have to do is run. I'll make the most of it for my guys."