Bounces, timing key for Horton

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Chris Horton’s Sunday began like any other game day. The Washington Redskins were playing the New Orleans Saints at FedEx Field, and the rookie safety would be part of it in one way or another. Some special teams action, for sure, but probably little beyond that.

Then, at about 8:30 a.m., Horton got a text message from Reed Doughty, the Redskins’ starting strong safety. Doughty said he was too sick to play and told Horton, a seventh-round draft pick last spring out of UCLA, that he would be starting his first NFL game in his place.

“I got a little nervous,” Horton said. “At first I thought it was a joke, but he doesn’t joke around like that. He’s like, ‘I got all the faith in you. I know you can go out there and do it. Just go out there and play football.’ And I did that.”

As if following the script of a corny movie, Horton, a New Orleans native, answered the call against his hometown team by recovering a fumble and intercepting two passes in the Redskins’ dramatic 29-24 comeback win at FedEx Field.

Horton recovered a fumble by Jeremy Shockey after linebacker Rocky McIntosh jarred the ball loose, helping stop the Saints’ opening drive. On New Orleans’ next series, Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot tipped a pass intended for Shockey, and Horton was there to pick it off.

And then, after the Redskins erased a 24-15 deficit with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, defensive end Demetric Evans got one of his hands on a pass from quarterback Drew Brees as the Saints tried to mount a comeback of their own. The ball popped into the air, and guess who was right there to gather it in?

Horton’s short return gave the Redskins the ball on the New Orleans 42 with 2:59 to go. New Orleans, with one timeout left, essentially was finished.

In each case, Horton knew the ball took a favorable bounce. But there was more to it than that.

“I knew exactly where to go, and I was in the right spot at the right time,” he said. “That ball’s going over there, and I’m just running to the ball.”

Redskins coaches showed faith in Horton by not moving cornerback Shawn Springs or anyone else into the position and not changing anything to accommodate Horton.

Horton let everyone know he was ready. Before the game, free safety LaRon Landry and safeties coach Steve Jackson tried to inform Horton about how what loomed ahead might be a little different from what he was used to. “And he was like, ‘Man, I got it. I got it. I got it,’” Landry said.

Said linebacker London Fletcher: “You get a little nervous when you start a rookie back in the secondary. You just hope he lines up correctly and things like that. But that says a lot about him and his preparation. He prepared all week, and he was a last-minute starter.

“We talk about doing your job and the ball will find you. So he had to be in great positions to get those interceptions and that fumble recovery. At the end of the day, they don’t ask you how you got it. They just ask you if you got it or how many.”

Horton is “smart, quiet, respectful to the veterans,” Fletcher said. “He’s really humble. I would say a very humble player. … We know he can hit. He’s a big hitter. But I didn’t know he was a ballhawk like that. That says a lot about his development.”

Despite earning several All-American and All-Pac-10 honors at UCLA, Horton hung around in the draft until the 249th pick.

“I consider myself a football player,” he said. “I don’t let where I got picked matter. All I ever asked for was an opportunity, and I’ve been given the opportunity. I know I can come out and compete at the highest level. I’ve been doing it all my life. The game doesn’t change. It just gets faster, and you spend a lot more time scheming up the other team.”

Horton, who grew up rooting for the Buffalo Bills and not the Saints for reasons even he can’t explain, played well in the preseason opener but then got sick. He missed about a week, including the next game.

“I don’t even know what it was,” he said. “It was crazy.”

For a team’s last draft pick fighting for a roster spot, that was not good news.

“I thought I might be blowing my chance, missing time that early,” he said. “After that first game, coaches saw a little flash, but I know I’m a seventh-round pick, and I’ve got to go to work every day.”

Said Landry, who played a strong game himself: “I could say that this guy was a baller as soon as he stepped in. … I had no doubt. I felt comfortable with him practicing with him [during the offseason] and in training camp.”

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