Former Penn wide receiver and current NFL rookie Justin Watson is now halfway through his first professional preseason. Amid a fierce competition for the last one or two receiver spots on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster and fresh off his first NFL touchdown two Saturdays ago, Watson took some time to chat with The Daily Pennsylvanian in an exclusive interview.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. This interview was conducted before the Buccaneers' game against the Detroit Lions this past Friday.
Theodoros Papazekos, The DP: So just to start off, are there any overall reflections so far on your first preseason and the very beginning of your NFL career?
Justin Watson: You know, I’m really trying to stay present and just focus on each day. I think I’ll look back maybe at the end of my rookie year, but right now I’m just staying in the moment, each day trying to improve. I’ve been happy with some of the positive things that have happened, but always trying to improve and correct those correctable mistakes.
DP: There’s been a lot written about how much you’re staying after practice and working with Jameis [Winston] and some of the other quarterbacks. How much of that is expected for a rookie and how much of that is truly extra?
JW: I think for me it’s something that’s just been instilled in me from my time at Penn. It was always, ‘If you can still run, stay after practice and get some extra routes [in],’ and extra reps always help. At Penn one of our sayings was always ‘One More.' One more rep, one more lifting session, one more route with the quarterback. So for me, I’ve just tried to embody that my first couple weeks down here and get to work with our starting quarterback. And he ended up throwing me a touchdown in our last preseason game, so I think there’s definitely a correlation there.
DP: The Bucs probably lead the league in Ivy Leaguers with [Harvard’s Cameron] Brate and [Ryan] Fitzpatrick. How much of a connection is there, are those guys helping teach you up?
JW: Yeah, it’s been great getting to work with those guys, and it’s been really positive having teammates with similar backgrounds and that have been through the same process that I’m going through coming out of the Ivy League. So they’ve been a ton of help. I played against their school so it’s a little bit of a friendly rivalry, and it’s been really helpful so far.
DP: Have there been any veterans specifically that have helped you out in your first few weeks?
JW: One guy is Chris Godwin. He’s a second-year receiver out of Penn State, and I think we’re a similar body size, and he’s a receiver also so same position. I think I’m going through a similar experience that he had last year. I’m going to be a receiver that’s going to be handed a lot of run blocking responsibilities, and I’m going to have a big role on special teams, and that’s something he did a really good job of last year, so he’s been helping me just catch up to speed on that stuff — and as far as mindset, bringing that hard-hat mentality in the run game and on special teams.
DP: Yeah so that special teams work — there’s been a lot written about that as well. What units are you on and have you been getting first-team reps?
JW: I’m on all four: punt, punt return, kick off, and kick return. Yeah, I’ve started at least three of them in each of the first two preseason games. So yeah, it’s something that’s going to be a huge part of my rookie year. It’s something I didn’t do a lot of at Penn, so I spend a lot of time after practice also doing special teams work and in the meeting rooms with our Special Teams Coordinator just breaking down the film and seeing different looks. So yeah, its been going well so far, I think I had an assisted tackle last week that I don’t think I got credit for on kickoff, so it’s something I’m having a lot of fun with and something that’s going to be really important for me.
DP: In terms of that transition from Penn, what has the adjustment process been like in terms of learning the playbook and stuff like that?
JW: I think the Penn staff did a really good job of preparing me for all this. As far as the work ethic and the style of play, what we were coached at Penn is exactly what coaches in the NFL want. As far as the playbook, I’ve seen a lot of carryover to our NFL playbook and been able to pick it up pretty quickly, because at Penn they taught us not only what we’re doing but the purpose behind it as well.
DP: You had the unfortunate injury earlier in the spring. Have you felt like you’ve been able to make up for that lost time?
JW: Yeah, you always wish you had that time back but obviously you can’t. So what I tried to do is take advantage of being able to get in the weight room a little more and get into my playbook a little bit more. And since then, just trying to make up for lost reps, grabbing a couple reps extra at practice, and after with Jameis, and making up for some of those reps we missed in the spring.
DP: You always see rookies especially talk about a ‘Welcome to the NFL’ moment. Do you think you’ve had yours yet?
JW: You know, I don’t think I’ve had one specific play yet. It’s just been a cool first two preseason games. I don’t think there’s been one play that’s been like overwhelming. I don’t think the speed is that much different than what I played at in college. I think it’s just every play you’re going against the best in the world, and there’s no easy opponents anymore, there’s no easy matchups. Every time you’re bringing your best against someone else’s best.
DP: In the first preseason game you had that fumble and then you bounced back with a touchdown in the second. What was your thought process and response to those two plays?
JW: Yeah, honestly, I think a pretty similar response to both of them. One thing that we talk about around here is ‘So What? Now What?’ So what this happened, now what are you going to do? With the fumble: I said I fumbled, so what? Now I’m going to make a play and try to bounce back, and I had another catch in that game. Same thing with the touchdown: it was a positive play, and I said so what? You scored a touchdown. Now what? You got to keep playing. You got to come out in the second half and have a good third quarter and I had a couple catches after that.
DP: There’s been a lot said also about how tight this competition is for this fifth receiver spot. What do you think your chances are of winning that competition and making the roster?
JW: I don’t really think that its my place to put a chance on it. The one thing I’ve always said was if you come in each day and improve and when you’re out there in the preseason games, you do what you’re coached to do and make the plays you should make, then everything else is going to take care of itself. So, I think I’ve come in each day with a good attitude and tried to improve, and I still have two more weeks of the preseason to go out there and make plays.
DP: In that competition, you’re obviously teammates at the same time, but you’re also battling those guys for a job. What’s that relationship like?
JW: Yeah, it’s definitely an interesting one. I think that our leaders in our receivers’ room have done a great job of setting the tempo and setting the mindset for our group. It’s the NFL — there’s always competition, there’s always great players, but I think it’s been a really healthy competition throughout camp, guys pushing each other and building each other up. At the end of the day, we said by the end of preseason we want everyone in this room to be making money playing football whether it’s with the Bucs or not.
DP: So, looking a little bit ahead, assuming you do make the roster, you’ve got Week 2 against the Eagles and Week 3 against the Steelers. How cool is it to play against teams that you grew up rooting for and being in the same city as?
JW: Yeah, it’ll definitely be neat. If all goes according to plan and I can make the roster, I’ll have a lot of people coming down [to Tampa] for those two games. My family back in Pittsburgh and my Penn family up in Philly that I’ve been with for four years — I know they’re going to want to come down for the Eagles game, so those are two games I’m definitely looking forward to.
DP: Looking back a bit on your Penn career, now that you’re gone, do you see anyone there who’s set to be the focal point of the offence?
JW: I think the one thing you’re going to see a lot this year is more of an attack by committee. I think obviously we have Karekin Brooks coming back, and he’s going to be a huge force in the run game, but as far as the receiver room you’re going to see a lot of guys step up. We had a lot of talent last year, a lot of guys that are capable of making plays and this year they’re all going to get a chance to. I think you’re going to see Christian Pearson and Steve Farrell really break out this year.
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