Another chance for Watkins

Senior linebacker appears set to start UW's season opener after playing very little last season

The past year has been a tough one for LaMarr Watkins. After paying his dues for two seasons as a backup linebacker, spot starter and special teams contributor, Watkins stood poised to become Wisconsin's starting will linebacker last year. That was until it all came crashing down, literally.

It was a high ball Watkins was trying to make a play on while back in coverage last fall camp that turned into the start of a rough campaign. On that play, Watkins hit the turf hard, bruising his back. The injury opened the door for linebacker Dontez Sanders to take over as the starting will linebacker, a position he refused to relinquish last season.

But his luck was about to get worse. While working in the weight room later in the season, Watkins suffered a freak injury when he dropped a weight on his toe, breaking the bone in several places.

The injuries cost the junior most of the season, as the Mt. Laurel, N.J. native saw action in just three contests, recording nine tackles, the lowest number of his career.

"It just got the point last year where I was like I don't even know what's going on. It's just the worst luck I've ever had," Watkins said. "I've never really been hurt during the season, and missed time during the season for an injury. So to do that, hurt my back and then break my toe, it was just one thing on top of the other. It was frustrating, very frustrating."

But this season the senior is healthy and rejuvenated. What's more, Watkins has earned back a starting spot, though at a different position than the one injuries cost him a year ago. In a small twist of irony, Watkins was given the chance to earn playing time due to an injury to the man who replaced him last year, Sanders.

With Sanders forced to sit out all of spring camp, Watkins took his opportunity and ran with it. His play throughout the spring and thus far in fall camp has impressed UW's coaches so much that the defensive staff juggled the linebacking corps to make room for him in the starting lineup.

"He's our starting sam linebacker right now," defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said. "In the spring when Tez was out he did some good things, and when Tez came out in the fall, [LaMarr] really played well again so what we decided to do is get him out on the field at the sam position, he played it early on in his career and he's looked pretty good at it to this point so far."

The new-look linebacking corps has Watkins playing sam, Sanders playing will, and Mark Zalewski, last year's starter at sam, moving over to the mike position. For the time being, sophomore Andy Crooks is the odd man out. However, Crooks, who started five games at mike last year, could move back into that position on running downs, or against less pass happy teams than UW's first opponent, Bowling Green.

Bielema does not expect Watkins to have much trouble adjusting to the sam position, which is similar to the strong-side drop linebacker spot he played under former defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove.

"I think football is football, the sam and will are actually very comparable," Bielema said. "The sam in our defense usually plays over to a tight end side and he seemed to be handling that pretty good. I think the biggest thing is LaMarr is a good athlete that wants to play the game and this is a good chance to get back out there."

Watkins agrees with Bielema, adding he believes the switch will actually help make him a better player.

"It makes things a lot easier because I understand both sides now," Watkins said. "I understand the defense a lot more after playing on one side and switching back to the other. I played it before so it's not really that big of a switch, it's just a different defense but it just helps me understand the defense a lot better."

Watkins hopes his better understanding, along with the trial and tribulation he endured, will translate into a productive season on the field.

"Last year I think I just kind of closed myself up and I just tried to keep focused on next year, I've always got next year," he said. "I just tried to stay positive for next year and everything is working out so I'm pretty happy…

"I just want to come out, have a phenomenal year on special teams and on defense. Just make as many plays as possible and maybe set myself up for a dream or something else."

When asked if the "dream" he was speaking of was the NFL, Watkins was very humbled by the thought of playing on Sundays, something his father did for nine seasons.

"If it happens, it happens. I'm not really thinking out it, I'm just trying to help the team out," Watkins said.

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