- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2000

The comparison seems obvious enough, but James Thrash wants nothing to do with it.

Brian Mitchell was the Washington Redskins' kickoff returner, punt returner and specialty running back for 10 seasons. Thrash now is the Redskins' kickoff returner, punt returner and starting wide receiver.

"Two different type players, two different positions," Thrash said yesterday. "I don't think we're anywhere near the same."

Fact is, Thrash doesn't like to compare himself with other players. But the parallel with Mitchell, Thrash's mentor until the outspoken specialist was released in June, is fairly striking. Where Mitchell once did it all for the Redskins, Thrash now does.

That's not the way things were planned. Thrash was expected to be the primary kickoff returner when Mitchell was released, but he didn't inherit punt duties until Deion Sanders' back spasms flared up and return average sank down during the first six games. And a starting wide receiver role wasn't open until Week 7 after Michael Westbrook suffered a season-ending knee injury,

and Irving Fryar missed two games to a bruised neck nerve.

The opportunities have been seized, though. Thrash, a 25-year-old former undrafted rookie out of Missouri Southern, has accumulated 1,563 all-purpose yards this season. Once the No. 4 wide receiver in training camp, Thrash leads the team's wideouts with 40 catches. In the past three games, he has 16 catches for 276 yards and two touchdowns.

"James is the MVP of the team," said quarterback Jeff George, whose passes gave Thrash the big numbers the past three games. "You [can] put him on any team and ask him to do whatever. He's the most important man on this team, especially on offense."

The concern now is whether Thrash is expected to do too much. Coach Norv Turner expressed concern about overloading his jack-of-all-trades several weeks ago, and Thrash hurt the Redskins on Sunday with a critical fumble in the 23-20 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

But the Redskins, to a man, deny that Thrash's fumble had anything to do with being overworked and "overworked" just might be an oxymoron when it comes to Thrash, who is praised endlessly for his dedication.

"I don't think his expanded role caused him to have the fumble," fullback Larry Centers said. "I think it was just one of those things that happened. Nobody's perfect… . I think he has quite a bit of responsibility, and I think he's handling it well. He has come through for us in some big situations."

And Turner no longer seems worried about Thrash's myriad roles.

"I don't have a big concern," Turner said. "Obviously, he's getting beat up like everyone is at this point, but he's still being productive. I don't think you can do this over an extended period of time, but James has been waiting a long time to get a chance to play. And as soon as I mention we may take him off of one of the teams, he gives me a dirty look."

Thrash actually has come off punt coverage in recent weeks, but he remains on kickoff coverage. He can't point to one task as being the most difficult, but he admits being worn out at times by the endless string.

"The combination of running down a kickoff, catching a punt return, and then the offense scoring, and having to run down on the kickoff again," Thrash said. "[It's tough] when they hit you back-to-back-to-back like that."

But this is what Thrash wanted. During the past three seasons, while he was catching just 15 passes, he told himself the opportunity would come if he worked hard and waited patiently.

"Exactly," Thrash said. "In the NFL it works out like that. Sometimes guys don't get the opportunity, then they wait and do get it, and they've got to take advantage of it."

Meanwhile, Thrash got another opportunity after the Redskins-Eagles games, taking a minute to speak with his mentor. Said Thrash: "[Mitchell] is a great returner, probably the best in the league. I was fortunate enough to come in here as a young returner and learn from him."

Just don't compare the two.

"I don't compare myself to anyone," Thrash said. "You can't do that."

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