Watson got the call. Even better, he's kept the job through two tough weeks.
"I did pretty good in the off-season, so Coach saw fit to put me as a one," Watson said. "And I've been doing pretty good. It's still a learning process with the new defense that's going in, so everything we're doing now is still learning. But I think we're making good progress out there."
Number-one status isn't entirely new to Watson, now a second-spring sophomore at State. Last fall he made one start (Georgia Tech) and played in nine other games as both a backup corner and on kicking coverage squads. So he's gotten a healthy taste of SEC action already. Now is time to make that proverbial next-step and challenge for larger duty in 2010.
"He's doing good, he's getting a lot of reps," said Coach Dan Mullen after Saturday's scrimmage. "Hopefully he keeps it going and gets into the rotation this year."
Watson has been making that case since the 2009 season ended. After all, much of the opening-spring-day lineup is dictated not by feats on-field in the previous season but winter work. Even were Broomfield full-strength, Watson would be in the picture this camp. "I've gotten a little bit bigger, going a little bit harder in the weightroom," he said. Not so much in pure pounds as he's listed the same 180; but in how the muscle is distributed on his 5-11 frame. In fact, he's now measuring an inch taller than a year ago.
"So hopefully it pays off in the fall," Watson said. "Oh yeah, and maybe I'm even a little bit faster!"
Of foot, he meant. At the same time Watson and all his cohorts in State's secondary are going to have be quicker of thought as well. Though from the day he arrived on campus Diaz has talked of relying on more man-to-man responsibilities in the defensive backfield, the fact is in spring the new boss is teaching these Dogs all sorts of different tricks. It's been an adjustment for a guy like Watson, now going on his third coordinator already.
"Technique-wise, well, like I say it's a learning process. The new defense is hard, there's a lot of new techniques. But it's coming along, it's coming along well and every day we're getting better."
That includes Watson himself. Practice observers have had high opinions of his potential since that 2008 freshman fall when he was working with the scout-team, and figured he would earn a place as either a corner or safety—or both as a nickel—at some point. He is more comfortable as a corner though, and anyway as Mullen has noted State needs more depth at both the positions Smith coaches. "At corner, very much like receiver, you like to have guys you can roll in-and-out a little bit so you can keep guys fresh," said Mullen. "We don't want to exhaust the guys on the field, we want guys that are playing fast."
As well as playing smart. And Watson knocks away the perception that a cornerback is a cornerback is a cornerback regardless of scheme. "No, that's not true," he said. "The defense we ran last year and the defense we're running now are totally different. And with a new defense comes new techniques. Hopefully we can adjust to it." For just one example, Watson offered, if State is working something like a cover-three now the cornerbacks are as likely to line up outside their man as inside, which is how they played a year ago.
"Stuff like that. And we still have a lot of man stuff. A lot of man, and a lot of blitz. So we have to get ready to stay with our man and be able to run a lot!"
Based on spring showings so far they already can, as the Bulldog offense—first and second groups alike—have found few opportunities to beat this secondary deep. When they did, such as QB Chris Relf's 60-yard strike Saturday to WR Chad Bumphis, it was a safety getting beat more often. And that isn't expected to happen very often in real games as State's veteran safeties have proven they can play in this league.
Besides, Watson said, playing cornerback for Diaz might be more technical than before…but they might not have to be on the job quite as long, either. Not after getting a spring look at how the front seven are performing in expected passing situations. "Yeah, if we hold our man long enough for the d-line to get to the quarterback, then everything goes smooth." For the defense, he means; for the harassed passer things can get rough, as often happened Saturday when the whole Dog defense was dominating scrimmage play. It speaks well to both the techniques and the attitudes Diaz wants his side to play with.
"Yeah, Coach Diaz brings a lot to the table. And that's what makes this defense exciting. So I can't wait until the season starts." Especially if Watson is still at the top of the depth chart. It won't be easy or automatic since, after all, Broomfield has shown he can hold down a corner pretty darn well already. Yet this is just another challenge Watson is willing to work at. And, like any good cover-man, he is convinced he can win.
"As a corner you always have to have confidence. You've got to have a swagger about yourself, you know. Most of the time you're out on an island by yourself so if you don't have confidence then you can't stay on the field. So just play with confidence in practice and it will run over to the game."