CHAMPAIGN — It could be easy to assume Ashton Washington might wind up pushing a career in football.
It’s an easy assumption to make given her vast connections to the game.
Washington’s father, Christopher, played at both Mississippi State and Air Force.
Her cousin, Joshua Dobbs, is now the backup quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars after a successful college career at Tennessee. And her younger brother, Parker, is part of James Franklin’s incoming top-15 recruiting class at Penn State.
Still, Washington didn’t always fully embrace football despite her family’s background.
“My dad, he was always Parker’s little league (football) coach,” Washington said. “All the way up to middle school he was always his coach. My dad and my mom, they used to force me to go to every practice, every game, very workout. I mean force. I’m like 11 or 12 and I’m talking back trying to get in trouble so I don’t have to go to any football games or practices the day of or day after. Now, look at my life. It’s all football.”
Washington’s career in football began during her time at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, when she was head of social media for The Old Coach, a part of the 247Sports network that provided coverage of high school football in Texas. That work helped Washington build a relationship with now former Illinois football staffer Joe Price, and when Price left Illinois for Texas-San Antonio this offseason, the door was open for Washington with the Illini.
Washington’s “mentor-mentee” relationship with Price led to a connection with Illinois director of recruiting Pat Embleton and then Illini coach Lovie Smith. The end result was Washington being named Illinois’ director of high school relations Tuesday.
“When I got on a Zoom call with Lovie, he said, ‘My staff, we have meetings throughout the month. Every time my staff speaks to me, your name always comes up at the very end,’” Washington said on Wednesday. “This is a pretty big deal, and I’m only 23. I don’t like to say age is a factor in this. I feel like I’m prepared. I feel like I’m ready to take on this big role and, of course, this trailblazer role.
“Now I’ve got to work hard, hard, hard to keep pushing and keep going and keep being that trailblazer. Of course, there’s going to be some hard times, but I can’t let it bend me and can’t let it break me.”
That Zoom call also saw Smith detail why he wanted to hire Washington. Near the top of the list, beyond her qualifications, was a desire to reinvigorate Illinois’ in-state recruiting efforts.
The Illini signed zero Illinois natives in the Class of 2020 and currently have zero in-state commits in the Class of 2021.
“That’s going to be the biggest aspect of what I’m trying to do,” Washington said. “When I walk into high schools in Illinois, I’m expecting to see coaches with Illinois mugs on their desks. That’s how much I want to build that in-state love and relationship.
“Come to us first. See what we have to offer. We have new facilities, a great coaching staff and that culture. I’m here to innovate and bring it more out.”
Washington’s passion for recruiting — and the idea for a career in football — has roots in her time at Fort Bend Travis High School in Richmond, Texas. She attended high school at the same time as Steven Sims Jr., who just finished his first season with the Washington Redskins. Coming out of high school, though, Kansas (where Sims ultimately attended) was his only major offer.
Sims’ recruiting process caught Washington’s interest.
“I was kind of watching and learning from his recruiting process of what to do with an athlete that doesn’t have any offers on the table,” she said. “That taught me a lot with that and triggered, ‘This is something I really, really like.’ I didn’t know what to call it at that point.
“I kind of found my passion and love sophomore year of high school. At that moment I’m like, ‘Hey, you could pay me $5 a day to go out and scout, recruit, talk, whatever you need me to do as long as I’m in football.’ That was how I found that passion.”
Following her brother’s recruitment and seeing it from all angles only reinforced Washington’s interest in a career in college football. She not only used her brother’s recruitment as a networking tool — a four-star recruit, he had more than a dozen offers — but also to learn.
“I’m a sponge,” Washington said. “I got to learn what to do and what not to do when I’m recruiting a kid.”
Any recruitment Washington does will be limited to on-campus activity. Most of her work, in fact, will be done before potential recruits even wind up visiting Champaign. Her goal is to build rapport with coaches and players alike to sell Illinois football.
“My job is to attract them to come to Illinois,” Washington said. “What can Illinois do for an athlete or what can we do to get them to us? I can’t really promise things, but I can say this is a new culture. I’m here to build those relationships. I’m here to bring in recruits. More importantly, I’m here to somehow bring in commitments from our own state.”