Hightower runs away with Redskins' starting running back job

Tim Hightower, acquired in a trade with Arizona after the NFL lockout, is all but certain to be the starter for the regular season opener.

ASHBURN, Va. (AP) - While the Washington Redskins quarterback derby has kept everyone on tenterhooks, the running back competition has become a one-man show.

Tim Hightower, acquired in a trade with Arizona after the NFL lockout, has separated himself from the pack and is all but certain to be the starter for the regular season opener against the New York Giants on Sept. 11.

"He's done a good job," coach Mike Shanahan said Saturday. "I'm not going to say he's our starter, but if you were betting in Vegas you'd probably bet in that direction."

Hightower has turned apprehension into accomplishment in the month since his unexpected change of scenery. He is averaging 6.8 yards per carry over three preseason games, and his 37-yard touchdown run Thursday night at Baltimore showed again why he's an ideal back for Shanahan's zone blocking scheme. On a stretch run to the right, Hightower patiently waited for the blocks to develop before darting forward and eventually cutting back to the left and heading for the pylon.

"I felt like I belonged since my first day here," Hightower said. "This team has a good offensive line, and we've made a commitment to running the ball. In some ways I feel like it was meant to be."

It's a far cry from the uncertainty he felt when he learned of the trade on July 31, even though it meant he was returning to familiar territory, not far from his high school in Alexandria, Va. The 2008 fifth-round pick thought his future was with the Cardinals, for whom he averaged 4.8 per carry last season, albeit for 736 yards.

"Arizona was my home for three years," he said. "I came into the league, I fought hard to solidify myself in that position and gain the respect of my teammates and the coaches and the fans and the community. "And it's right to that point when you feel comfortable, right when you felt like, `OK, I've made a name for myself,' you get snatched out and you get thrown into a whole new environment. But you know what? If things work out, I'm in the right place at the right time."

When the trade was made, Hightower was seen as a likely third-down back, a complement to returning starter Ryan Torain. But Torain's durability issues surfaced again when he broke his left hand early in training camp. He has yet to play in preseason, although he was on the field for practice Saturday and is expected to play Thursday against Tampa Bay in the final exhibition game.

But Hightower has shown he's ready to carry the load - and hang on to the ball. He lost four fumbles last season with the Cardinals, but he's yet to put the ball on the ground in preseason with the Redskins.

Yet, for all the progress he's made over such a short period of time, Hightower realizes it doesn't mean anything yet.

"It's still preseason," he said. "I've got to make it count when those wins and losses start going in that right column."