ASHBURN, Va. (AP) — Fish Smithson still can’t get the number 427 out of his head.
Being a teammate of Washington Redskins running back Samaje Perine is one constant reminder.
Smithson was a safety for Kansas in November 2014 when Oklahoma’s Perine rushed for an NCAA record 427 yards that still stands today.
“I remember him running all over us,” Smithson said.
Three years later, a season-ending injury to Rob Kelley has thrust Perine into the role of the No. 1 back for Washington. Perine has 66 carries for 210 yards through nine games but will be expected to pick up that pace starting Sunday at the New Orleans Saints.
“With Rob’s injury now, we’ll see a lot more Samaje down the stretch here,” coach Jay Gruden said. “I just want to see more production. That’s all.”
The Redskins will split carries between Perine and third-down back Chris Thompson and signed Byron Marshall off the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squad, but this is the rookie fourth-round pick’s show now. He already has one start under his best and felt good about getting loose with nine rushes for 35 yards against Minnesota in Week 10 when Kelley injured his left knee and ankle.
But this is no cameo.
Perine is now the full-time feature back, which comes with more chances on the ground and in the passing game. And quarterback Kirk Cousins believes Perine has all the tools to become a complete NFL running back.
“He’s always run the ball really hard, and I think he does a great job with that,” Cousins said. “The pass game is really the growth that a running back needs to take when he first shows up in the NFL because of how many pressures are being thrown at them and how much responsibility we place on a running back in pass protection, and those are the places where he can grow and will grow.”
Perine, whose last name is pronounced “P-rine,” has one fumble this season that came on an exchange with Cousins. They expect that chemistry to come with more handoffs, as will the 22-year-old’s familiarity with the offense, blocking schemes and opposing defenses.
“You just have to get the reps, and once the reps build up and once you get more comfortable in the situation then things start to slow down for you,” Perine said Wednesday. “It takes actual game reps. And you can practice it all you want, you can look over film, but actually getting those full-speed reps that’s really going to help when it comes to knowing how the speed is and how everything is put together.”
At 236 pounds, Gruden said the Redskins would like to see Perine run over more defenders, break more tackles and pile up some more yards after contact. That would help their 23rd-ranked running game, which hasn’t been able to keep enough opposing defenses honest.
As Gruden has grappled with staying committed to the run and abandoning it for pass-happy drives, Perine should help significantly because of the type of back he is.
“He’s such a physical guy that I think the more carries he gets, he’ll wear down a defense,” Gruden said. “He’s not so much a spell guy, he’s more of a run it, run it, run it type guy.”
Smithson knows all about that. The practice-squad safety actually made the tackle on Perine’s record-setting run and recalls the game coming to a stop for a few minutes as fans gave a standing ovation. It’s one of his “worst memories,” but now it gives him confidence that Perine can do the job.
“That just shows how much potential he has,” Smithson said. “He was a great back at Oklahoma. He’s having a good year now, and I feel like now that he’s getting a good chunk of the load, he wants to prove what he can do.”