justinwatson
Credit: Amanda Suarez

For Watson, things are looking pretty elementary.

Justin Watson, that is.

Through the first six games of Penn football’s season, the sophomore wide receiver is putting together one of the best pass-catching seasons in recent memory. The Bridgeville, Pa., native has tallied 39 catches for 561 yards and five touchdowns, all of which lead the team.

“He’s a great kid. He works exceptionally hard,” Rick Ulrich, the Quaker wide receivers coach, said. “And he’s got great open-field running ability. He breaks a lot of tackles.”

That elusiveness and physicality was perhaps best exemplified during Penn’s shocking upset of Villanova on Sept. 24. Watson hauled in two touchdown passes in that game, one of which came on a dominating 33-yard catch-and-run that featured several broken tackles and one particularly nasty stiff-arm.

“I’ve really tried to work on my running after the catch,” Watson said. “This year, I’ve really made a point to stay on my feet and make sure that just one guy never tackles me.”

During his high school days, Watson was a highly sought recruit out of Pittsburgh-area South Fayette High.

“I was pretty much deciding between going to Buffalo [of the Football Bowl Subdivision Mid-American Conference] or Penn,” Watson said. “What really sold me is that, when I got here, it felt like a big football school. It was the best of both worlds, both academics and football.”

“He had a lot of different options, including some at higher levels,” Ulrich said. “He’s here, and the rest is history.”

The wideout impressed during his rookie season a year ago, notching 42 catches for 497 yards, both program records for a rookie. After getting his feet wet during the first half of the season, Watson emerged as a bona fide offensive threat during Ivy play.

“It was about this time last year, before the Brown game, that I knew I was about to start having a bigger role in the offense, and I’d start taking over that role as the No. 1 receiver.”

“You could see during his freshman year that he was going to be something special,” head coach Ray Priore said.

A year ago, Watson had established senior receivers Spencer Kulcsar and Conner Scott above him on the depth chart. While the team sputtered to a disappointing 2-8 overall record, Watson believes he gathered valuable experience under their tutelage.

“Conner was the first guy in and the last guy out every day. I learned to lead through my actions from him. And Spencer was always in my ear; he was kind of a gnat,” Watson said, laughing. “I’ve been trying to fill their role and make sure that all the other receivers are working as hard as we can.”

Despite all his early-season success, Ulrich still maintains that Watson has areas of his game that can be improved.

“He’s not a quality blocker just yet,” Ulrich admitted. “I’m on him about it every day. He doesn’t like to hear me talk to him because it’s probably about his blocking.”

However, improvement in that category may have to wait. Watson has been donning a red non-contact jersey in practice over the last few weeks as he nurses a shoulder injury suffered in that win over Villanova. Though he sat out the second half of that game — making his 87 yards and two TDs on the night even more impressive — Watson has managed to avoid missing meaningful game action.

“Like it is with everyone else, the healthiest you’re going to be is the first day of camp, and after that you’re going to be banged up,” Priore said. “And our training staff does a phenomenal job of getting us ready.”

Going forward, Watson has some clear-cut goals for his career in University City.

“One, I want to win as many Ivy League championships as we can,” Watson said. “And I want to be first team All-Ivy each year. ... If I could get that this year and the next two, that would be pretty cool.”

Those goals are perfectly attainable, if you ask coach Priore:

“When a real good player is also your hardest worker, that’s a great combination.”

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