By John Grupp
Tuesday, September 12, 2006

By most accounts, Nate Washington's final home college football game at tiny Tiffin University drew about 350 fans.
It was Oct. 30, 2004, and Tiffin beat Walsh that day.

So it's understandable the former undrafted free agent felt rewarded when he ran onto the field in front of the third-largest crowd in Heinz Field history before the Steelers' 28-17 season-opening victory against the Miami Dolphins.

"I felt good," he said. "You come out and you work so hard and you know there are people behind you."

In front of a national television audience and a Terrible Towel-waving crowd, Washington may have arrived as a key part of the Steelers' receiving game.

The second-year wide receiver made a leaping catch for a 27-yard touchdown to give the Steelers a 7-0 lead. It was Washington's first NFL regular-season reception and first touchdown.

Washington also made big plays on a pair of third-down conversions -- a 5-yard reception on a third-and-two to midfield and an 8-yard end-around on third-and-six to the Miami 13. The drive ended with Charlie Batch's fumbled snap at the Dolphins' 1, but Washington proved his versatility.

He finished with two receptions for 32 yards and one touchdown, and one carry for 8 yards.

"I'm getting more comfortable," Washington said. "I'm a lot more relaxed when they call my number."

After the game, Washington stood outside his locker with an ice wrap on his right knee, speaking to a group of reporters.

"I had an OK day," he said. "There are a couple of things that I definitely need to get better on during the season if I'm going to be an accountable guy. I did all right for my first regular-season game. But I definitely have a lot more to get better."

On his touchdown pass, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Washington used his 39-inch vertical leap to outjump 6-foot-1 Dolphins free safety Travares Tillman for a highlight-reel catch.

"Nate is a big guy, and I wanted to give him an opportunity," Batch said. "Nate always talks about how much of a vertical leap he has. I put it up there, and Nate made a great play."

Admittedly, Washington made a rookie mistake after the touchdown. He spiked the ball and ran toward his celebrating teammates. Somewhere along the way, the memento -- his first NFL touchdown ball -- was lost in the shuffle.

"I spiked it by accident, and I ran off the field and somebody asked 'Where's your ball?' Washington said. "I thought about it, and I went 'Oh, man.' I was so excited; it didn't even matter to me right then."
I look for big things from this kid. He's got good size and speed and he's shown he's not afraid to go up and get the jump ball in traffic and lay it on the line for the team.