UVA’s Washington strikes fear in opposing defenses, leads ACC in everything

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Malik Washington is in rarified Virginia air. Only eight games into his UVA career, the graduate transfer from Northwestern is enjoying one of the most productive seasons ever by a Cavalier receiver.

Headed into Saturday’s home game against Georgia Tech (2 p.m., the CW network), Washington needs only 65 yards to reach 1,000 for the season, which would make him only the sixth Cavalier to reach that milestone in one season.

Washington leads ACC receivers in practically every category and ranks among the top five nationally in most, which means even as successful as the 5-foot-8, 194-pound slot receiver is, Virginia’s coaches are continually challenged on how to get the ball in his hands. Washington’s No. 4 jersey has a big target on it by the defense.

Opponents are staying up at night trying to figure out a way to prevent Washington from beating them.

“Defenses are not letting him get behind them for the most part,” Tony Elliott said this week. “So, it’s forcing Des (Kitchings) and the staff to move him around a lot to try to make sure that we don’t put him in a stationary place to where they can kind of hone in on where he is.”

Kitchings is putting Washington in a lot of short motions, using more play-action in order to spring the inside receiver on some move-the-pocket plays so that Washington can run away from defenders.

The speedy wideout has six 100-yard receiving games this season, with a pair of three-game streaks of over 100 yards. No Wahoo receiver has ever had four games in a row with 100 or more yards. Georgia Tech ranks No. 80 nationally in passing yards allowed (235.6 per game).

Washington, who has a 33-game streak with at least one reception (dating back to his time at Northwestern), has good speed and knows what to do when he gets the ball in his hands.

He doesn’t run like a wide receiver, but more like a running back, which explains why he’s No. 1 in the ACC and No. 4 nationally in yards after catch with 480 (according to Pro Football Focus). He also has 20 missed tackles forced after a reception, which also leads the ACC and is No. 3 in the country.

Washington has accounted for 44 percent of the Cavaliers’ receptions this season and 48 percent of the team’s receiving yards, both the highest for any team in the country thus far.

Helping Washington negotiate all this defensive attention is wide-receiver teammate Malachi Fields, who has helped draw some of the coverage his way. Fields, a product of Monticello High School locally, has 39 receptions this season for 498 yards and two touchdowns.

“It’s good to see Malachi continue to make plays because I think that helps when you have those two guys, because then you can kind of make [the defense] make a decision on which one you’re wanting to take away,” Elliott said. “The next challenge for us is not so much with Malik, it’s going to be the third guy that’s going to step up. If we can get that third receiver to really come on, that really balances the field and then the more production you have from the tight-end position, then you’re able to take a little bit of the focus off of Malik.”

Virginia’s most productive tight end this season, Sackett Wood (seven catches, 123 yards) will miss Saturday’s game while recovering from an injury. The coaches have been hoping that freshman Suderian Harrison or J.R. Wilson would make some strides. Presently, running backs Kobe Pace (10 catches, 114 yards) and Mike Hollins (8 catches, 27 yards) are the most productive receivers behind Washington and Fields.

With that in mind, there’s pressure on Washington to get open and deliver, even though secondaries are trying to keep him in front of them, then trying to make a play and tackle the elusive receiver.

Here’s where Washington ranks among ACC and national FBS receivers:

  • Receiving yards: 935 (ACC rank 1st; FBS 3rd)
  • Receiving yards per game: 116.9 (ACC 1st; FBS 3rd)
  • Receptions: 68 (ACC 1st; FBS 3rd)
  • Receptions per game: 8.5 (ACC 1st; FBS 3rd)
  • All-purpose yards: 1,137 (ACC 1st; FBS 5th)
  • All-purpose yards per game: 142.1 (ACC 1st, FBS 5th)
  • Receiving touchdowns: 6 (ACC 2nd, FBS 24th)
  • Yards after catch: 480 (ACC 1st, FBS 4th)
  • Missed tackles forced after a catch: 20 (ACC 1st, FBS 3rd)