There’s plenty of ways for an offense to drive down a field. But for Penn, the most reliable ones all end with the ball in Justin Watson’s hands.
Watson, the senior receiver out of Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, is more than just a cookie cutter wideout. He’s a playmaker and an offensive weapon who can get the job done in a variety of roles.
Routinely, Watson will shift across the line of scrimmage, moving in and out of the slot, while even taking a few snaps at running back in order to keep opponents on their toes.
Defenses will be zeroed in on Watson, a preseason first team All-American, so mixing up the formations will be a key component to help get the 2016 Walter Payton Award finalist some space.
“I think the biggest thing is avoiding any of the double coverage,” Watson said.
“Our offensive coordinator is really creative… and we’ve been experimenting with a lot of new tricks this camp, and I think they’ve been going well so far.”
Ultimately, it won’t be any scheme that frees Watson up. It will be his talent that separates him from the pack — and that talent is undisputed.
Watson has been hauling in awards almost at a faster pace than he hauled in passes last season. He’s already a two-time unanimous first-team All-Ivy selection and Ivy League offensive player of the year finalist. He’s on every preseason anything list, and there’s already an NFL Draft buzz in the air.
“We’re all super excited for him,” fellow receiver Christian Pearson exclaimed. “It’s always great to have a Penn Quaker getting some love from NFL scouts or whoever it may be.”
Despite the chatter, Watson isn’t getting lost in the hype. He will let his play speak for itself on Saturdays.
“I really don’t want to leave this season with any regrets, so I’m focusing on our first game and the nine games after that before I think about anything down that path.”
The only question is, will Watson be able to keep it up without the recently-departed Alek Torgersen delivering him perfect strikes?
For the first time in his career, Watson won’t be paired up with Torgersen, who now plays in the NFL on Washington's practice squad. Obviously, that presents a new challenge to the veteran.
“It’s different not seeing Torg out there,” Watson said of the new look. “There’s little things you take for granted. Alek and I just got on the same page.”
Not only is Watson missing Torgersen in the backfield, but for the entire summer there has been a three-way quarterback competition, causing the learning curve to be a little steeper for the transition. Coach Ray Priore has announced that senior Will Fischer-Colbrie will be the starter against Ohio Dominican on Saturday, but multiple quarterbacks will likely be used, adding more turbulence to the situation.
“I think the quarterback position is vital to your offense and how your whole team flows,” Priore noted.
But with a new look under center, it will be Watson’s presence that the offense might have to lean on. Priore knows this, too.
“It’s always nice having Justin out there in case all else fails,” the third-year head coach said. “He’s so talented.”
“If you need to get the ball into his hands, you can, and he can make big plays happen.”
It’s not only Watson’s elusive talent that separates him — it’s his work ethic and leadership abilities. No one summarized that balance better than offensive coordinator John Reagan.
"Justin is phenomenal for any player, regardless of the quarterback, because what he shows is when your greatest players are your hardest workers, and your greatest players are your greatest people, you’re going to be in pretty good shape if guys will follow that,” the veteran play caller explained.
Of course, it wasn’t just Reagan that piled on the praise.
“Justin has been a leader since I met him,” Pearson said of the captain. “I was a freshman and he was a sophomore and even then he was showing me the ropes and teaching me how we do things around here.”
“He’s such a humble kid,” Priore added. “He’s the hardest working kid on the team, and he leads by example.”
Despite his humility, Watson doesn’t let it get in the way of playing like he has something to prove.
On November 14, 2015, it was that style of hard-nosed play that catapulted Watson on to the scene.
He had already put together an impressive season before the Quakers entered Harvard stadium on Week 9 as the underdogs. But with his team’s season on the line, Watson cemented his status to the greater football community.
Watson led the Quakers with seven catches for 149 yards and a touchdown. But his receiving stats don’t tell the whole story.
In the first quarter he hauled in an impressive 68 yard touchdown after streaking across the middle of the field and high stepping into the endzone. The exclamation mark however came in the fourth quarter.
Up three, and thirteen minutes away from ending Harvard’s 22-game winning streak, Watson lined up at running back. He took the handoff at his own 20-yard line, cut to the outside, hit the corner, slipped through four defenders and took off for six.
That 80-yard run confirmed that Penn was back after two seasons of mediocrity, and it was the notice to the whole Ivy League that Watson was a force to be reckoned with.
This year, despite the accolades, the scouts’ buzz and the league titles, Watson is leading the Red and Blue on to the field with a chip on their shoulder.
“We’re hungry. We’re picked third after back-to-back championships,” Watson said about the league's preseason media poll. “It’s definitely a disrespect from the start, and we love that.”
In 2015, the Quakers split the Ivy League three ways. In 2016, they shared it with arch-rivals Princeton. Their former star quarterback is fighting for an NFL job, and they lost one of their top defenders to the transfer bug. But it seems like none of that matters today. They’ve got Watson, and they're confident.
In a tight spot, at the end of a game, Priore knows whom he will lean on.
“Justin Watson, our receiver, is as advertised.”
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