HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (AP) – Leon Washington can no longer walk into the locker room anonymously, put on his uniform and pads and head out to the practice field the way he did at the beginning of the season.

The New York Jets rookie running back with the flashy moves and the big, bright smile draws crowds to his locker these days.

“Football is fun,” said a beaming Washington, surrounded by nearly a dozen reporters and a handful of cameras Wednesday.

Washington has rushed for over 100 yards in two of the last three games and, more importantly, might have established himself as the Jets’ running back of the present – and future. The urgency for Curtis Martin to recover from his knee injury and get back on the field lessens with each productive game by Washington.

“It’s been pretty good,” he said, “but at the same time, I have to remain humble in my approach and realize that I’m still a young guy and there’s still a lot of places I can improve my game on the field.”

That’s an ongoing process, helped in part by Martin, who in some ways is passing the baton to Washington. The two constantly talk, and Martin has told him to be more patient with his runs and use the entire field, not just instinctively bounce to the outside.

“Thank God I am blessed with Curtis Martin in the locker room,” Washington said recently. “He has been a big help in our running game and he has also taught the offensive line and helped them out. It’s just one of those things that having him in the locker room has been a big help, especially to me in my rookie year.”

That’s saying a mouthful, especially since Washington has single-handedly sparked a running game that was stagnant during the first few weeks. Since Martin’s season ended in Week 12 last year and his career was thrown into uncertainty, the Jets have been looking for someone to step up.

First, it was Cedric Houston, then Derrick Blaylock. The Jets, knowing Martin wouldn’t be ready for this season, traded for Lee Suggs but voided the deal when he failed a physical. Kevan Barlow was the next to come in, but hasn’t been as productive as New York hoped.

The answer has come in a small, shifty and powerful fourth-round draft pick from Florida State.

“That young guy, he’s great,” safety Kerry Rhodes said. “The thing about him, he’s all about football. He’s always here late studying, he’s got all the moves and he’s a quick guy. It’s good for him – it’s good for us.”

The 5-foot-8, 202-pound Washington was initially considered little more than a change-of-pace back who could return kicks and punts, similar to how Tiki Barber was labeled early in his career. Washington is already turning into a lot more for the Jets.

He rushed for 101 yards against Jacksonville in Week 5, had 58 yards on 11 carries against Miami the following week and a career-high 129 yards – the most by a Jets rookie since Matt Snell had 180 in 1964 – and his first two NFL touchdowns in New York’s victory over Detroit on Sunday.

“My job is to do whatever’s needed: running the ball, making tackles on kickoffs and just improving each week,” Washington said. “And if my name is called, just take advantage of the opportunity and give our team a chance to win.”

He’s certainly doing that. His 346 yards rushing are third among NFL rookies, behind only New England’s Laurence Maroney (361) and Indianapolis’ Joseph Addai (354). Not bad considering he was used mostly on kickoffs in the first two games.

Washington is an intriguing mix of Barry Sanders and Terrell Davis. He uses his shifty hips to throw off defenders and zips by them with terrific speed on some plays. And, despite his size, he’s tough to tackle because of his strong upper body and powerful legs. Rarely does he go down on a first hit, and he keeps his legs churning.

“For me, the most impressive thing is his physicality,” Pennington said after the Detroit game. “People are learning about his speed, but he’s very physical between the tackles.”

The Jets must have seen that when they made him the 117th pick in the draft, despite a generally unspectacular college career.

He rushed for 951 yards and seven touchdowns in nine games as a sophomore, but had just 660 yards and two TDs the next two seasons. Still, the 2004 Gator Bowl MVP became the only player under Bobby Bowden to score a touchdown five different ways, getting into the end zone last season on a run, reception, punt return, kickoff return and fumble recovery.

In maybe the surest sign that Washington has arrived as a big-time NFL player, fantasy football fanatics have been furiously clamoring to add him to their teams – a thought that amuses the rookie.

“Some of my friends are big into fantasy football, and I really didn’t know too much about it until earlier this year,” Washington said, again flashing that familiar smile. “It feels good. For those fantasy guys who go out there and play me, I guess it’s good for them.”



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