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Originally published August 17, 2011 at 9:00 PM | Page modified August 18, 2011 at 6:00 PM

Seahawks' kick-return specialist not worried about rule change

Will this season's move to the 35-yard line for kickoffs lessen Leon Washington's impact?

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

Exhibition, Minnesota Vikings @ Seahawks, 7 p.m., Ch. 5

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RENTON — The NFL hasn't had many, if any, kick returners better than Leon Washington.

The quick and nimble running back almost single-handedly led the Seahawks to last year's 27-20 win against San Diego with two kickoff returns for touchdowns. Washington added another against San Francisco, making him the first NFL player with three kickoff-return touchdowns in two different seasons (2007).

His career total of seven is second-best in league history.

Boasting such accomplishments, you might expect the 29-year-old to be discouraged by a new rule that pushes kickoffs up to the 35-yard line this season — a contentious change that will likely lead to more touchbacks.

He isn't. Opposing special teams, beware.

"Honestly, not to be bragging, but we work hard at it," Washington said, "so we feel like if we bring it out 5 or 6 yards deep (in the end zone), we're going to at least get by the 20-yard line. ... We're not worried about that. We're going to do our thing."

For Washington, contributions might extend beyond returns this season. Despite his limited impact on offense in 2010 — 179 combined yards rushing and receiving — the 5-foot-8 playmaker is coming off a terrific offseason and is catching notice in training camp.

Two years removed from suffering a broken leg, he's in great shape, he's stronger and he's eager to provide a spark however he can.

"I'm ready to roll," said Washington, unable to hide his excitement and optimism behind a smile.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said his return specialist is "much farther ahead" than he was 12 months ago.

"Last year at this time, he was limping around and cringing as he was running with the football," said Carroll, who as a result found it hard to evaluate Washington's skills.

And now?

"He is in full flow, full speed and he really is excited about it as we are," Carroll said. "He loves every day out here because he knows he really is competing now.

"Last year, he was just out here surviving and just making it through it. So he should be a real upgrade and his play should be a real asset to us, so we're real excited about him coming back."

Again able to showcase his explosiveness, it's still amazing to think that Washington is just a couple years removed from a devastating injury. After being traded by the New York Jets to Seattle for a fifth-round pick, Washington got off to a tenuous start in camp, but by Week 13 against Carolina he felt 100 percent physically and his confidence was fully restored.

To continue that momentum, Carroll expects Washington to get a lot of reps in practice this week and in Saturday's exhibition game against Minnesota.

"We love him," the Seahawks coach said. "We love what he does, but I just think he needs reps in the zone schemes that we're running and so he can show us where he's special and unique in our stuff."

And even if the new rule might change kickoff returns leaguewide, don't expect that to hold Washington back.

"I love punt returns. I love kick returns. I love catching the ball out of the backfield. I love running the ball," said Washington. "Whenever I get the chance ... I look forward to helping this team a lot."

Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or jmayers@seattletimes.com

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