ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Montrell Washington may be a small player from a small school, but the rookie has been larger than life for the Broncos through the start of training camp.
Playing at Samford University, a school in the Southern Conference with a total enrollment of fewer than 6,000 students, the 5-foot-10-inch wide receiver was relatively overlooked as a prospect despite putting up impressive numbers in college. In 49 career games, he consistently found the end zone in almost every possible way; he scored 17 receiving touchdowns, eight rushing, one off a kick return and four off punt returns.
Washington's senior season was outstanding, and in 2021 he led the nation in all-purpose yards per game with 176.2. That year, he established himself as a jack of all trades with 18 total touchdowns with nine receiving, six rushing, two punt returns and one kick return. In one of his best career games, Washington racked up 322 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns (including a kickoff return for a score) against the University of Florida. If there were doubts that Washington could succeed against top competition, his performance against an SEC team showed otherwise.
The Broncos selected Washington in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft with the 162nd-overall pick, with the expectation that he could become a dual returner for special teams. Washington has been working with the special teams unit during training camp, but he has also stood out as a pass catcher — so much so that he's getting reps with Russell Wilson and the starting offense.
"I'm just growing from it, to be honest," Washington said of his opportunity to practice with the first-string players. "Still learning, trying to take everything in from Tim [Patrick], Court [Courtland Sutton], [Jerry] Jeudy, even KJ [Hamler], those guys, just trying to learn as much as possible. Just glad I was able to get in with the ones and make a couple plays, so coaches can see, those guys can see, hopefully just gaining that trust from the vets to show them that if my number is called, I can make those plays."
When No. 12 has been called over the first five days of training camp, Washington has indeed made plays. The rookie has scored two touchdowns so far in training camp, the first coming on Day 1. During a period of red zone reps, Brett Rypien threaded the defense to find Washington in the middle of the end zone for the score.
When Washington had a few opportunities to take snaps with the starters on Saturday, he certainly made the most of it. Using his signature speed, he blew past the secondary at the end of team reps and got wide open, hauling in a 60-yard bomb from Wilson for a touchdown.
His standout play has allowed him to continue to get more practice time with the first-string group this week. Washington says he understands he still has a lot to learn despite his success, but he credits the veteran wide receivers for giving advice and encouragement to help him improve — particularly fellow speedster KJ Hamler.
"Everybody's just been so nice, just helping with everything," Washington said. "Some plays here and there, just [telling me] to calm down. Especially KJ, that's my guy. KJ, when I first got here, was one of the first ones to come up to me and [say], 'Hey man, relax, take it all in, enjoy it, don't overthink things. Yeah, it is a lot, but at the end of the day you're here for a reason.' I'm just glad to have those guys in my corner just helping me out."
Hamler, who is slowly working his way back into practice from injury, has been a great resource for Washington. The third-year wide receiver has helped the rookie gain confidence and learn the nuances of playing in the NFL, though Hamler is adamant that Washington would not be able to beat him in a race.
"Montrell's my boy, he's learning from me," Hamler said. "I kind of take him under my wing because rookies always come in thinking too much, worried about the plays and stuff, so he's gotten way better just asking me questions, being a sponge and just absorbing stuff. I've kind of been his bigger brother in this whole process."
Though you wouldn't know it from Washington's stellar play in practice, the jump to the NFL has been a big adjustment. Compared to his conference of small schools, the pace of play at the professional level is faster, strategies are more complex and the fans show up in droves.
Washington, who always seems to have a positive outlook, is taking it all in stride.
"In college you've got a little leeway to have little mishaps here and there, but now there's no room for error," Washington said. "Things have got to be perfect. If [Wilson] wants to throw a corner ball, he's going to throw it to a spot so you've got to be in that spot, small things like that.
"For my college games we had a couple fans, but we've had more fans here [at training camp] than I've had at my actual college games, so just to be a part of this is a dream come true. I can't stop smiling."
The coaching staff has praised Washington for being one of the hardest workers on the team, and that work ethic becomes clear once practice has wrapped up every day. Even after most of the players have gone into the locker room, Washington stays on the field to get extra reps. On Monday, he spent more than 15 minutes after practice running red-zone routes for quarterback Josh Johnson.
"Just learning," Washington said of his extra work after practice. "Trying to better myself, doing things to, when my number's called, be able to help the team out and do what I've got to do when it's my turn. Just trying to learn everything, slow and steady, day by day."
Based on the opportunities he's gotten so far in training camp, Washington could have a more dynamic role on the team than many people initially expected. The rookie's hard work is paying off in big ways, and Washington is showing that he has what it takes to become reliable for the Broncos in multiple phases of the game.
Flip through exclusive photos from Broncos team photographers Gabriel Christus and Ben Swanson from the fifth day of training camp.