Mark Richt can be generous when praising his Georgia players, but rarely does the coach make grand, Domanesque predictions.
Then, earlier in Georgia's spring practice, came this proclamation from Richt that would have been more in character from Jim Donnan, his predecessor. Said Richt: "Ben Watson has the capability to be as good as anybody in the United States of America. It's just up to him.''
As good as anybody in the nation?
If Richt had chosen a more accomplished player — say senior linebacker Tony Gilbert, senior offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb or even sophomore receiver Fred Gibson — the vote of confidence might not have landed with as much force. Watson is entering his first season as Georgia's starting tight end. As the top backup to Randy McMichael last year, Watson showed promise with his 11 catches for 187 yards and one touchdown, but that's not the kind of numbers on which a player normally is ranked with the best in the nation.
Then again, Watson is not a normal athlete. The king of Georgia's weight room, Watson is a 6-foot-3, 251-pound chiseled rock.
Watson is an athlete who first stands out in a crowd of players in the first days of practice, because he looks like he's wearing shoulder pads when he's just in a T-shirt.
Perhaps not as skilled as McMichael as a receiver, Watson has more of the traits of a traditional tight end. Then again, how many tight ends can match Watson's team-record 530 pounds in the bench press and still boast a vertical jump of 36 inches — a figure topped by only a handful of Georgia players? As good as anybody in the nation?
By NFL combine standards, Watson may already be there. His bench press of 530 pounds last year topped the previous record for a Georgia tight end by 125 pounds. He adds 4.5 speed, making him an attractive option at H-back. Asked if he has told Watson he thinks the fourth-year junior — who began his career at Duke before transferring two years ago — can rank with the nation's top tight ends, Richt said "I'll let him read it.''
Added Richt: "I think he knows it. I think he knows he can be as good as anybody.''
If so, Watson was not aware of the strong vote of confidence from Richt.
"I haven't heard that,'' Watson said before pausing for a few seconds.
"It's flattering but we have a lot of guys on this team who could be as good as anybody in America. It's not like I'm the only one with that potential. I think everybody on the team has the potential to be great. It's his way of telling me that he's going to push me that hard, along with my position coach.''
Also pushing Watson is junior Robert Brannon, who this year moves up to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart. Brannon has been mentioned by Richt and tight ends coach David Johnson as one of the most improved players on the team, but Watson is the clear starter.
"Ben is having a really good spring,'' Johnson said. "His blocking is really coming along. I think he's going to be more of a leader for us. Every day he comes to practice ready to work.''
Watson faced the possibility of another season as a top backup before McMichael passed up his senior season to enter the NFL draft.
"It was what Randy wanted to do and he got his degree and he's happy with his decision,'' Watson said. "I want everybody to know he got his degree. He did a lot of great things here at Georgia. He felt it was time to go. You can't argue with his decision. I'm happy for him.''
Now more responsibility rests on Watson's broad shoulders. As he will be lining up next to an offensive line that will feature four or five senior starters, Watson is looking forward to Georgia's power game.
"I think we would have no excuse not to be able to run the ball,'' Watson said. "We've got an All-American in Stinchcomb. We've got five seniors. We've got experience galore. Basically winning championships is being able to run the football. Our goal is to be dominating in the running game and that will open everything else.''
While McMichael was a capable blocker who was better known for his ball skills, Watson "obviously is a lot stronger at the point of attack,'' Johnson said.
"Ben comes off the ball and does a good job with his strength. Overall, just being strong is going to help him with a lot of things.''
Added Johnson: "He's what you want. It is just of matter of continuing every day to improve.''
NOTES: Georgia was off Saturday and has five practices planned for next week, including next Saturday's 2 p.m. G-Day game. ... Receiver Terrence Edwards was on crutches after suffering a sprained right ankle in Friday's scrimmage. His status for the G-Day game is not known. ... Former quarterback Matt Redding has moved from defensive end to linebacker, where at 6-foot-2 and 233 pounds he is a better fit.
Charles can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com