- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2003

Getting leveled by Matt Bowen might turn out to be a good thing for Trung Canidate.

Bowen’s hit on the Washington Redskins running back drew coach Steve Spurrier’s ire and was the subject of endless “SportsCenter” replays Wednesday, but it also showed offensive coordinator Hue Jackson a few things he needed to know about Canidate.

“He held onto the ball — he got right back up,” Jackson said yesterday. “I’ve seen guys take a hit like that and not get up. I was very excited about that, even though it’s not something we want to have happen. It was good for me to see that happen, because I could evaluate him in that situation and see how he handled it.”

If Canidate maintains such toughness, he could win training camp’s biggest battle and retain his spot as the Redskins’ No.1 back. If not, 2000 undrafted rookie Kenny Watson has been solid, and a number of club officials believe 2002 second-round pick Ladell Betts was ready to dazzle before suffering a minor elbow injury this week.

Spurrier said yesterday that some type of running back rotation is likely during the season, and some in the organization maintain that it is possible to keep Canidate, Watson, Betts and return man/running back Chad Morton on the final roster.

Still, it’s a compelling race to see who starts. Current indications are that the starter will be the one best able to do everything required of a running back — coaches probably won’t, for example, start Canidate and eliminate the power aspects of the offense, or start Watson and try not to get him out into space. The idea is to pick the one who can do everything.

A goal line drill in yesterday’s workout allowed Canidate to demonstrate more of the toughness that was perceived to be lacking in St. Louis. After picking him in 2000’s first round, the Rams traded him in March for a fourth-round pick and journeyman guard David Loverne. A number of NFL personnel people said Canidate wouldn’t get it done in Washington either.

“People are always going to ask questions about you,” Canidate said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it bothers me, but you can’t get too high or too low in a situation.”

Asked if he could play with power, he replied, “Definitely. You’ve got to be powerful as a running back. That can be power in your running style or creating angles to set up defenders — getting them off balance.”

Canidate is blessed with tremendous speed, but speed ultimately is just one weapon in a running back’s arsenal. Also crucial are the abilities to shed tackles, read holes, catch balls out of the backfield, chip-block and, of course, bust through the line of scrimmage on third-and-1.

For Canidate to be Washington’s starter, he needs to make those third-and-1s.

“The other two, I know they can — I’ve watched them do it,” Jackson said. “Trung, I’m just evaluating every day in those instances and situations where it’s very tough and very critical, where he’s got to do something for us. If he proves that, then to me he’s shown enough to have an opportunity to be the guy.”

His rivals also have their backers. Watson won over a number of teammates last season by rushing for 534 yards (No.2 on the club behind Stephen Davis’ 820 yards) and catching 32 passes (No.3 on the team and No.1 among non-wide receivers). Some players said privately that Watson should be the starter.

But even if Watson plays the best, team officials still must overcome the psychological investment in Canidate and Betts. The pickup of Canidate came amid much fanfare as Washington burst into free agency, while Betts was a high-round draft pick.

Watson talked yesterday about how he still thinks like an undrafted player and how much he gained from two years alongside Davis, a Pro Bowl back with tremendous toughness who was cut because he didn’t fit Washington’s salary cap or Spurrier’s style.

Being the most like Davis and the most unheralded has led to the conventional wisdom that Watson will be cut or traded by camp’s end. But he continues to ignore such talk.

“My mindset is to focus on what I need to do to get better — as a football player, and to help this team get better,” Watson said. “I’m not worried about all the ‘odd man out’ talk. That’s out of my control.”

The excitement surrounding Betts’ possibilities came from his performance in offseason practices and the natural ability Washington saw when it drafted him. He appears to have a body capable of bursting through the middle and getting around the corner, and his growing knowledge of the offense could allow him to meet his potential after his sprained elbow heals.

“It’s frustrating,” he said of the injury. “But it’s a situation where I’m glad that it happened when it did, early on, instead of later on. If I can get it healed up and get it behind me, I can get back out there and compete.”

In any case, current activities are a warmup for when the battle really will be decided — four preseason games.

“I can’t wait to see them in a preseason game,” Jackson said. “We haven’t had a lot of situations where it’s been live, physical contact. But from what I’ve seen, they all bring something different to the table, and when it all shakes down and is said and done, I want to make sure that we have the best running backs on our team.”

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