Area stars not Hyde-ing this NFL season

It’s been a pretty good NFL season.

No, not for the Browns.

Not for the Lions.

It has been for the Bengals, though I have yet to meet anyone who seriously believes they are a Super Bowl contender.

But 2013 has been good to players with Seneca County connections.

We start in Tennessee, where the Titans have two players on their roster who played their college ball in Tiffin.

Receiver Nate Washington has had a pretty good career, probably better than most expected after he spent most of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2005 championship season on the practice squad.

A star for Tiffin University who finished his career there in 2004, Washington was activated for 2005’s AFC Championship Game in Denver and has been a solid contributor ever since. First in Pittsburgh – where he helped the Steelers claim another Super Bowl title in 2008 – and then in Nashville.

Washington, who turned 30 in August, signed a six year, $26 million contract with the Titans in 2009. Since then, he’s been one of the franchise’s best pass catchers, highlighted by a 74-reception 1,023-yard season in 2011.

Washington goes into today’s season finale with the Houston Texans needing 120 receiving yards to reach 1,000 yards for the second time in his career. He’s coming off a game in which he caught the winning score, a 30-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter at Jacksonville.

While Washington is an established NFL veteran, Michael Preston, who played four years at Heidelberg, is trying to get established.

Like Washington, Preston went undrafted. His final season at HU was 2010, and he played for the Arena Football League’s Utah Blaze in the summer of 2011. Almost as soon as his season with the Blaze was over, Preston was signed by the Titans, and spent ’11 on the practice squad. Since then, he’s bounced between the practice squad and the main roster. He had four catches in 2011 and has 11 so far in ’13.

But the thing is, he’s made his catches count.

Preston had a breakout performance against the Cardinals. He had three catches for 27 yards, but two of those went for late TDs – the first ones of Preston’s NFL career – that capped a Titans comeback and forced overtime. The Titans went on to lose, but Preston’s performance caused NFL Red Zone host Andrew Siciliano to exclaim “What in the name of John Buccigross is going on?”

Buccigross, an anchor for ESPN’s SportsCenter, is a Heidelberg graduate who usually figures out ways to sneak HU or the Tiffin area into his broadcasts.

It’s possible that this offseason will mark turning points for Washington and Preston. The Titans are 6-9 and going nowhere, and there’s been plenty of speculation about the future of coach Mike Munchak.

And whenever coaches change, personnel usually does as well.

Not to be a homer, but the Browns need receivers.

Speaking of coaches under fire, former TU running back Chris Ivory is playing for perhaps the most controversial coach in the NFL.

Ivory is playing his first season for the Jets, who are coached by Rex Ryan. Ryan has seen Ivory have what is – statistically – his most productive season. The 25-year-old, who was traded to New York after three seasons with the Saints, certainly has had his most durable year.

There have been few questions about Ivory’s talent, dating back to when he came to Tiffin from Washington State for the 2009 season.

Ivory’s ability to stay healthy is another story.

His health woes actually started in Tiffin, when he hurt his knee against Ashland in the fifth game of the season. Ivory missed the rest of that season, and started prepping for the NFL. He signed as an undrafted free agent with New Orleans, and since then, his career has been marked with flashes of brilliance that have often been overshadowed by more injuries. In his four NFL seasons, Ivory has never averaged less than 4.7 yards a rush. But before this season, he’s appeared in more than six games only once in his career. That was in his 2010 rookie year, when he had 716 yards and five touchdowns in four games for New Orleans.

But this year, while Ryan has been forced to deal with quarterback controversies and injuries to his roster, he’s been able to count on Ivory, who has appeared in all but one game and has run for 814 yards and three scores.

Ivory had one of his best games as a Jet last week against the Browns (yeah, I’m shocked, too), going for 109 rushing yards in a 24-13 win.

It’s a long shot, but Ivory can get his first 1,000-yard season if he rushes for 186 yards against the Dolphins in Miami today.

And finally, let’s talk about Micah Hyde, the former Fostoria star everything who’s in his rookie year with the Packers.

Hyde, the only player of the area quartet who was drafted (he went in the fifth round out of Iowa), has proven an exceptional player at corner and on special teams. Hyde has 40 tackles and a sack for Green Bay, having played in all 15 games.

He’s quickly becoming a dangerous returner. He’s taken a punt back for a touchdown this year, and returned a kick 70 yards last week against Pittsburgh.

It’s been a strong rookie season, and no one knows when it will end. The Packers are still alive for a playoff spot, but Hyde – who injured his shoulder last week – has been listed as questionable for today’s game against the Bears.

But whether he plays or not, Hyde’s future in the NFL is bright.

One more area player, Green Springs native and former star Clyde QB Alex Gillett (who played his college ball at Eastern Michigan) was in camp with the Packers as a receiver, and was signed to the team’s practice squad last month, where he has been since.

Couple thoughts on everything above:

* So, we have five area players in the NFL, but only three teams that have area players on them. Weird.

* No matter what happens, a number of people in this area can say they saw Micah Hyde guard Jon Diebler in basketball. Diebler, for his part, is playing pro basketball in Turkey.

* Are we seeing any future pro football players now? It’s hard to tell. No matter how many games we go to as writers, we aren’t scouts. But what these five players have shown is what is possible.

And that should give plenty of athletes playing here hope.

Zach Baker is the sports editor of The Advertiser-Tribune.

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