HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (AP) -Leon Washington got to know his way around the practice field during his first summer as a member of the New York Jets, and for all the wrong reasons.
``That's all I remember, a lot of laps,'' Washington recalled with a smile Friday. ``A lot of laps.''
Whether it was fumbling kickoffs, punts or making other mistakes, Washington became a frequent target of coach Eric Mangini's wrath in training camp last year.
``I talked to him a lot,'' a grinning Mangini said. ``I talked to him at practice when he was doing it. I talked to him in the team meetings when I showed that stuff. I'm sure he got sick of hearing me say his name. There were a lot of clips of Leon there early on, but he just powered through it and kept rolling.''
He sure did. Just 17 months after that rough start, the exciting and elusive Washington was selected by his teammates as the Jets' MVP, an award named after his mentor, Curtis Martin.
``It's a great thing to be honored,'' said Washington, whose vote went to safety Kerry Rhodes. ``So many great guys in the long history of this organization have their name on the wall in the hallway in this building. It says a lot about what your teammates think about you.''
In a disappointing season in which the Jets had great hopes but have struggled to a 3-11 record with two games left, the game-breaking Washington has been one of the few bright spots. He took over on kickoff returns when Pro Bowler Justin Miller was injured early in the season and turned in a performance worthy of a trip to Hawaii. Washington ranks second in the league with a 28.2 yards per return average and has a league-leading three touchdowns on kickoffs. Washington lost out in Pro Bowl voting to Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs, who's leading the NFL in kickoff return average.
``Man, that's a tough one,'' Washington said when asked if being team MVP makes up for the Pro Bowl snub. ``Joshua Cribbs is a good guy and he did a wonderful job for his team over there and it kind of makes it feel a little better.''
Washington, averaging 10.1 yards on punt returns, has also provided a good change-of-pace option in New York's running game. While Thomas Jones is the starter, Washington has used his speed and zigzagging moves to rush for 281 yards and three TDs. He's also fourth on the Jets with 31 receptions.
``The thing I like about him is he's not intimidated by anything,'' Mangini said. ``Nothing is too big for him. He enjoys the challenge of being in a tough spot. I've said this before, he's the guy that wants the last shot. He wants the ball. He's not looking to be off in the shadows when things get tight. He wants it.''
He's come a long way since those long trips around the fields at Hofstra two summers ago, when he came in as a fourth-round draft pick out of Florida State.
``I think about the progress that I've made since I have been here and I attribute that to all the players and veteran guys that have helped me out along the way,'' he said. ``And Coach Mangini hanging in with me, sticking with me and giving me an opportunity.''
That didn't come right away, though. He had just one carry through the first two games last year, and 17 for 58 yards after four games. Washington's big breakout came in Week 5 last season in front of his hometown fans in Jacksonville, where he rushed for 101 yards on 23 carries to become the first Jets rookie to go over 100 yards since Blair Thomas in 1990.
Washington started eight of the last 11 games and led the team with 650 yards rushing while firmly establishing himself as a dangerous weapon on offense.
``He took the coaching, the criticism and the hard times and he never blinked,'' offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. ``He doesn't back down from a challenge and I think that's one of the reasons he's done so well and we should continue to expect great things from him.''
Not bad for a guy who was considered by many to be too small - at 5-foot-8 - to make much of an impact in the NFL.
``Words can't describe it,'' Schottenheimer said. ``People say that Leon's small. Well, Leon's not small. Leon may be short, but he's unbelievably competitive, has a terrific work ethic and I think he's got great instincts for the game of football. ... He's a guy that the guys rally around.''

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