Havre de Grace's Johnny Brooks knew Darin Washington had a chance to be special the day he was born. Brooks, the Warriors' longtime football and basketball coach, is the uncle of the highly-touted junior quarterback. He had a gut feeling that with the family's athletic bloodlines (his father was a receiver in college, and three of his uncles also played football at a high level), Washington would follow suit.
"I've known Darin forever, and if he didn't become an athlete, then you might start to wonder, 'What's wrong with this kid?'" said Brooks, who played quarterback at Clemson before finishing his career as a receiver at Towson. "He's on par with what I expected. I haven't been surprised at all."
Evidently it wasn't surprising when an eight-year-old Washington towered over the other kids in the youth leagues, leading some to wonder whether he should be playing high school ball. It wasn't surprising when he played quarterback as a 10 year old and lit up the field like a seasoned veteran. It wasn't surprising when he became the hottest middle-school quarterback prospect in the Harford County area since . . . who knows - maybe ever.
"When Darin got here [to Havre de Grace], he was the man," said Warriors senior receiver Trevon Barnes. "He had all these expectations. And he lived up to them all."
Indeed he did. As a freshman, Washington pulled the unthinkable: He became Havre de Grace's starting quarterback. Although he was raw and his mechanics suspect, the young gunslinger threw 25 touchdown passes, unheard of for a player with so little experience.
"The coaches were all sitting there on the sidelines the first day of practice Darin's freshman year," recalled Brooks. "He throws this pass 65 yards on the fly. We looked at each other and our eyes just got big.
Unfortunately for Washington and the Havre de Grace faithful, he had to take his arm elsewhere in 2009. His father's job forced a move to Georgia, so there would be no encore performance. Instead, Washington transferred to West Lake High in Atlanta where he played in just four games (he threw six touchdown passes) due to transfer rules.
But Washington made a triumphant return this year after his father was able to move back to Maryland. Washington had sprouted up to 6-feet-3 and was now weighing in at 185 pounds. Even better, he looked like a complete quarterback.
With a strong right arm, a speedy set of wheels and pinpoint precision and pocket presence, Washington led his team to the state championship game last year. He threw for more than 2,000 yards and 29 touchdowns, completed 60 percent of his passes and rushed for more than 500 yards and nine scores. His performance earned him Second Team All-Small School honors.
"The game just slowed down for me," Washington said. "When I was a freshman, even though I did well, everything moved so fast. But this year I was able to see more in the defense. I owe a lot of it to my line and Coach Brooks."
Yes, it helps to have an uncle who is not only your coach but also a former quarterback. The two have been working on drops, reads, and throws since Washington was old enough to get his fingers around the laces.
Which is probably the reason Washington was doing things his freshman year most high school quarterbacks can't do their senior years.
"We're around each other all the time and we have a great rapport," Brooks said. "I know how he clicks. We're used to each other."
The feeling is mutual.
"I wouldn't be anywhere without [Brooks]. I've seen him play and he's taught me so much," Washington said. "He showed me things growing up about the quarterback position I never knew, like little things about footwork and reading defenses I never even thought of before."
All the work has seemingly paid off. Washington is already being touted as one of the top quarterback prospects in the state next year. He's received interest from a number of Division-I college programs, including the likes of Rutgers and Georgia, according to Brooks.
"Look, Darin is going to be unreal in college, but you have to play with him to understand just how good he really is," Barnes said. "He commands the huddle. And whenever he throws you the ball, you know it's going to be right there. It's always a good pass; as receivers we never have to reach behind us or leap up or anything. Never a bad ball - ever."
That speaks to Washington's dart-like accuracy. Most coaches consider a 50-percent completion rate acceptable for a high school quarterback. For those that play in a spread offense -- where a quarterback lines up in the shotgun and throws those short, quick passes -- it's usually a little higher.
Washington, however, completed 60 percent of his throws playing in a pro-style offense. He lined up under center and took a classic five-step drop more than half the time.
"Four incomplete passes is a bad day for Darin," Brooks said. "A coach came up to me after a game this year where Darin went 16 for 20. He asked me if there was something wrong with him. Darin spoils you with his accuracy."
But perhaps even more impressive is Washington's pocket presence. Many young quarterbacks have a tendency to panic when they're blitzed. They begin to tap dance around before trying to scramble away like some hyperactive mouse running from a hungry cat. Not Washington. His feet are calm, and he has enough savvy to step up in the pocket.
"When the defense blitzes me and expects me to scramble, I can step up and make the throw," Washington said. "I pride myself on being able to step up in the pocket."
Some defenses stopped sending extra pass rushers. They preferred to play a zone defense, dropping extra men into coverage to close Washington's passing windows. But that left the running lanes wide open. Washington made them pay with his 4.6 40-yard dash speed.
"He's one of the fastest kids on the team; he's a basketball player, too, and he's so athletic," Brooks said. "We actually had to encourage him to use his speed more. He's taken well to it."
Against North Harford last season, Havre de Grace elected to run a quarterback draw on 4th-and-15. The Hawks played a deep-cover defense, but Washington proceeded to break a tackle before splitting the linebackers for a first down.
"I'm similar to Donovan McNabb," Washington said. "I'm more of a passer first, but I can make a play with my legs when I need to."
Washington showed off all his talents in the postseason, the state's best kept secret finally unveiled. In four playoff games, Washington threw for 669 yards and seven touchdowns and rushed for two more scores. Rivals.com named him the top quarterback in the postseason.
"He shined on the brightest stage," Barnes said. "There was this throw he made against Brunswick where [receiver] Dayshawn Bolling ran a fly route and Darin put it right up there on his finger tips 60 yards downfield. Dayshawn walked into the end zone. It was the most beautiful pass I've seen."
That state semifinal game again Brunswick was even more significant for Washington. The Roaders came in boasting their own stellar quarterback, Ian Fisher, a 6-6 mammoth who is widely regarded as the top 2012 quarterback recruit in Maryland.
But Washington had something to say about that. Not only did the Warriors win the game, but Washington also triumphed in his own personal duel with Fisher. He threw for 146 yards and accounted for two touchdowns.
"We're a little biased, but Darin's better than [Fisher]," Brooks said. "[Fisher] doesn't have that feel for the game like Darin does. When a play breaks down and it doesn't happen like it's drawn up, Darin can get the job done. When he doesn't make a play, you're shocked."
Washington may be a great quarterback, but he isn't the second coming of Billy Cosh, who is considered the best signal caller in state history. His mechanics aren't perfect, and while his arm strength is good, it's probably not as good as the Havre de Grace personnel make it out to be. He also needs to continue working on his reads and blitz pickups. That much was evident in the championship game against Dunbar, where Washington made numerous ill-conceived throws.
"There is plenty I need to work on," Washington said. "I'm not a finished product."
But that's what Brooks is there for. The uncle/coach/mentor already has Washington primed for a breakout 2011. Heck, he predicted that the day he was born.
"He's getting better every day," Brooks said. "Right now, I don't see any deficiencies in his game. In another year, he'll be playing at the Division-I level."