ATHENS, Ga. - Georgia received some unexpected good news Thursday when tight end Ben Watson, one of four juniors on the team who had declared for the NFL draft, announced he has changed his mind and will return for his senior season.
Because he had not signed with an agent, Watson was eligible to take advantage of a 72-hour period allowed for underclassmen who have said they will enter the draft to instead decide to stay in school. That countdown began Wednesday at 5 p.m. - the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft - so Watson could have waited until Saturday to change his mind.
Instead, speaking to an audience that included his Georgia teammates, his parents - Ken and Diana Watson - and reporters, Watson said he didn't have to wait any longer to realize it was not time for him to begin his professional career.
"Playing in the NFL has always been my dream, and I had a chance to go get it, but there was a lot of turmoil in my heart,'' Watson said.
Watson said that prayer helped him decide "I have unfinished business here.''
Watson (6-3, 253) could have been selected as high as the third or fourth round in April's NFL draft.
Watson ranked third on the team with 31 receptions for 341 yards and three touchdowns this year. A versatile player due to his receiving and blocking skills, Watson's strength will make him an appealing prospect next year.
"Physically, he's a tremendous talent and he has a ton of upside,'' said Todd McShea of The War Room, which covers the draft for The Sporting News. "On the flip side, I don't think he was ready (for the NFL).''
Watson would not have had the option of changing his mind if he had signed with an agent. His father, Ken Watson, said he had narrowed the list of potential agents down to three. The plan was for Watson to meet with those three candidates on Monday.
Ken Watson said the deliberate process of interviewing agents was not designed to give his son the option of changing his mind.
"No, we were going full-speed ahead,'' said Ken Watson. "Ben saying he was going to stay was as big a shock as when he said he was going to go in the draft.''
Quarterback David Greene was among the players who cheered Thursday at the end of the press conference. If not for Watson's about-face, Greene and receiver Fred Gibson would have been the only returning starters on offense, though receiver Damien Gary was a part-time starter.
"That's huge for us; we needed him back,'' Greene said. "We finally are getting some good news. We've had a lot of guys leaving.''
Greene said "my jaw dropped'' when he saw Watson earlier Thursday and Watson asked if Greene wanted him back for another year.
Greene and Watson helped Georgia win its first Southeastern Conference championship in 20 years and finish 13-1 with a Sugar Bowl victory over Florida State.
Even with Watson's return, Georgia must replace every starter on its offensive line and at linebacker, in addition to Smith, Sullivan, receiver Terrence Edwards, fullback J.T. Wall and punter Jonathan Kilgo.
Watson said the challenge of winning another championship was one reason he will return for his senior season.
"That's always a motivation,'' Watson said. "We definitely have a chance to win a national championship next season. We have enough talent in this room to do that.''
Coach Mark Richt didn't attend the press conference but in a statement said Watson's decision "will have a great impact on our team from a leadership standpoint. With the entire offensive line graduating, this puts him into a significant leadership role with our offense.''
Richt predicted Watson will benefit by raising his draft status next season.
"He'll be one of the leading tight ends in the country this fall,'' Richt said.