Since USC: Derek Watson

In this special edition of the "Since USC" feature, catches up with former South Carolina running back Derek Watson. The dynamic backfield standout played for USC from 1999-2001 and helped lead the Gamecocks to the best two-year stretch in school history in the 2000 and 2001 seasons. Check inside for this can't-miss interview with the former Gamecock great.

Derek Watson attended Palmetto High School in Williamston, SC and graduated as the state's all-time leading rusher with 6,766 rushing yards and 88 touchdowns in his high school career. A prized recruit, Watson signed with South Carolina and first-year head coach Lou Holtz in February of 1999, spurning Tennessee on signing day and signaling to Gamecock Nation that brighter days were ahead.

During his three year career as a Gamecock, "Squeaky," as he was affectionately called by USC fans, rushed for 2,374 yards and 19 touchdowns, dashing for some of the most memorable, highlight-reel runs in the modern era of Gamecock football. Watson surpassed the 1,000 yard mark as a sophomore in the 2000 season, rushing for 1,066 yards and 11 touchdowns, and he remains the last USC running back to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season.

Following a forgettable 0-11 season in 1999, Watson helped spark one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history, as the Gamecocks finished 8-4 the following season and had memorable, national headline-stealing wins over Georgia and Mississippi State.

As a junior, Watson played a key role in USC's run to a 9-3 record, helping lead the Gamecocks to the best back-to-back seasons in school history. The 2001 campaign was capped off with wins over Clemson in the regular season finale and Ohio State in the Outback Bowl.

Watson remains a fan-favorite in Gamecock Nation, and after overcoming his share of obstacles, he continues to pursue his football dreams to this day as a running back for the CFL's Calgary Stampeders.

The following is a Q&A session between Derek Watson and GamecockAnthem's Will Tiller.

Question: Derek, it's hard to believe it's been nearly a decade since you played for the Gamecocks. What have you been up to since your playing days at South Carolina?

Derek Watson: It's really been a long road for me. For the most part, I've just been trying to get back to playing football and going back to school to finish up my degree. I went back and ran my family's car wash, Williford's Car Wash, up in Anderson, South Carolina for a little while. I was working out hard and trying to stay in shape while I was doing that. Then I got a call about playing football up in Canada.

I enjoyed getting to spend some quality time with my family since I was away so much living in several different states and now in Canada. I was with the (New England) Patriots and Tampa Bay (Buccaneers) so that kept me away from home and from my family for some time, but it was just great to get back to South Carolina to see my family, friends, and occasionally run into some Gamecock fans who recognized me. I've got two little girls, one's nine and one's seven, and I loved that I got to spend time with them.

Other than that I'm just going to church a lot and thanking the Lord for giving me all that He has, and blessing me with another opportunity to play football. That's really what's gotten me to where I am now: having this second chance to start my life over again, getting my family in order, playing football again, and finishing up my degree has truly been a blessing.

Question: You were obviously a very highly sought after running back coming out of high school. What made you decide that you wanted to be a Gamecock back in February of 1999?

Derek Watson: Pretty much Lou Holtz coming to South Carolina was the reason for me going to South Carolina. I was recruited by schools like Clemson, Tennessee, Georgia, and other places, but (Holtz coming to USC) pretty much made my decision to stay in state pretty easy. Being able to be a home-state guy playing for Lou Holtz was an opportunity that I couldn't pass up. I really thought he was going to do a great job turning the USC program around.

Even though I grew up in South Carolina, I really didn't know too much about the program since I grew up closer to Clemson. I actually went to more Clemson football games growing up than South Carolina games, so when I went to USC I didn't know too much about their football history. I basically went to USC because of Lou Holtz.

Question: How about any of your former teammates that you played with, do you still keep in touch with them?

Derek Watson: I talk with a couple of guys, but not as many as I'd like to talk to. I don't get too much time to get on the computer and catch up with those guys, but I run into a lot of guys that I played with on Facebook. I'd love to get together with the guys sometime and have some kind of reunion. I know most guys feel like when they were in college their teams were significant.

I believe the 2000-2001 teams we had when I was at USC were some of the best teams that Carolina ever had. We went from a 1-21 record the previous two years to go 8-4 my sophomore year and then 9-3 my junior year. That was one of the best records that USC ever had, and we went to the Outback Bowl two years in a row and beat Ohio State both times. Then Ohio State beat Miami for the national championship the following year. With the exception of a few seniors that left Ohio State, we beat that same team two years in a row, so I think that says a lot for the character of our team and what we were able to accomplish. I think it was great that we were able to beat some of those really good teams in the SEC in those years as well.

Overall, I think my class, the Lou Holtz class, with the things we were able to do was one of the best runs that USC has ever had. The talent on that team really shows because a lot of those guys that played with me are in the NFL now like Andrew Pinnock, Kalimba Edwards, Andre Goodman, Sheldon Brown, and a lot of others.

I like to give my teammate, Ken-Yon Rambo, a hard time because he played on that Ohio State team we beat twice, but then he was able to win a national championship later so I can only clown with him so much before he brings that up. But that run with those USC teams is something that I hold in high regard and consider as my claim to fame.

Question: What are some of your fondest memories that stick out to you when you look back at your time playing for the Gamecocks?

Derek Watson: To tell you the truth, I wasn't too big on stats. The stuff that I really held high was the things like beating Ohio State two years in a row.

My fondest memory was just how good the guys were on my team and what we were able to accomplish. I don't claim to be an expert, but I've been playing football my whole life and I think I know good football players and good football teams when I see them. I just feel like our team wasn't recognized as one of the best football teams that ever came through USC. It's probably been a while since USC had a 8-4 and 9-3 record in consecutive years, so that's what I hold in the highest regard. I think if we had played in another conference then we might've had a shot at a national championship. It's hard to get there when you play Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee every year, but like I said, I'm happy with what we were able to accomplish.

Question: A lot of people say your 61-yard touchdown run against Clemson in 2000 is something that they'll always remember about you. How would you rate that amongst your best memories/performances?

Derek Watson: (Laughing) Yea, I watch it on Youtube every once in a while so that I can relive the glory days. It was a dive right play where the offensive line zone blocks whoever is in their gap. It's one of those plays where the running back has the opportunity to choose which hole he wants to hit based on where the defensive line is playing. The blocking was really good, then the Clemson safety came up and I kind of stepped through his tackle. After that it was just off to the races from there.

I guess I got a little too excited there at the end and stuck my finger out at the guy. It was a totally bonehead thing to do. Sometimes players get in situations like that where they let their emotions get the best of them. I didn't plan to do that, it was just a spur of the moment thing with me about to score and being from that area of South Carolina.

I had been to the Clemson stadium so many times growing up, so I knew the seating arrangement. My whole family and dozens of friends always sit in that end zone, and that just happened to be the one I was running towards at the time. I was looking at them, and they were going crazy as I was pretty much running right at them. I felt I just had to do something, and I guess I kind of juiced it up a little for them and got the flag. But let me tell you, I certainly had to hear it from Coach Holtz when I got to the sideline.

My family and friends have talked about that for years and it still comes up to this day.

Question: What are your thoughts on the current Gamecock team, and can you give me a prediction for how well you think they will do this year?

Derek Watson: Well, to be honest with you, with me being up here it's hard for me to keep up with them and the other college football teams like I normally would if I were back in the U.S. I love college football so much, and my favorite thing to do is just sit around and watch three or four college football games on a Saturday.

As far as the USC team, I think they are going in the right direction. With recruiting, you've always got to win the in-state recruiting battle. You most definitely can't let Clemson beat you in that.

Coach Spurrier is a great coach and really knows how to lead a college team. If the players really buy into his scheme of things and why he does things the way he does a certain way, then they'll understand their roles better.

One of the things I've noticed over the past couple of years is that you've got to play hard on every down and not take a play, like on special teams, off. You can't do things like that and have a guy run a punt or a kickoff back for a touchdown because that could be the difference in the game. You've just got to go out there and get the job done on every play.

Confidence that you can go out there and win is big too. When you get it in your head that you're going to win the SEC then you've got a chance to do that. You've got to think like a winner in order to be one.

I think USC will have a pretty good team. USC has talent and they've always had talent. I've already made preparations and plans to watch the game on Thursday night and I think they'll win.

Question: Is there any message you'd like to pass onto Gamecock Nation?

Derek Watson: I want them to know that when I made the decision to become a Gamecock in '99, I was making the decision to become a Gamecock for life. Even though I didn't finish my career at USC, I'll always be a Gamecock and I'll always be a fan of all Gamecock athletics.

As far as the people who are still fans and were fans and alumni when I was there, I want to say that I greatly appreciate the support you gave me and for believing in me. Some people doubted me and other people said bad things about me, but for those people who continued to back me up I want to say thank you. USC fans are loyal fans, and when I run into them every now and then they tell me that they still love me. Even though it didn't work out for me I'm surprised at the amount of people who still believe in me.

If there's one thing that I could say to Gamecock Nation, it would be that I'm a Gamecock for life and that I can't thank the fans enough for all that they've done for me.

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