How do you replace a legend?
A few times in football history, teams have been lucky enough to replace one legend with another. It happened with the Packers with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. It happened with the 49ers with Joe Montana and Steve Young.
Penn football isn’t trying to do that. The Quakers know a talent like Justin Watson comes around once in a lifetime. So instead of trying to replace him with just one guy, it’s a whole team effort.
“It’s a common question just about everywhere where you have an NFL caliber player that disappears, and how do you replace that,” offensive coordinator John Reagan said. “And the really quick answer is that there’s not a simple answer.”
Even though he’s gone, Watson still looms large for this team. After all, he did account for 70 percent of the receiving touchdowns, 50 percent of the receiving yards, and just under half of the team’s receptions. But there are plenty of guys ready to step up and pitch in where they can.
The two most experienced receivers Penn has are seniors Christian Pearson and Steve Farrell. Pearson had an excellent 2016 campaign, hauling in 40 receptions for 514 yards and seven touchdowns. That effort was good enough to earn him a second team All-Ivy nod, but he regressed last season, finishing with just 14 catches. Farrell is more of a deep-ball specialist who makes things happen after the catch; he averages 23.3 yards per haul.
As the players with the most in-game reps so far, they figure to get the lion’s share of the workload, at least early on in the season.
“I think we all recognize how great [Watson] was. We’ve all been working hard towards making up that lost portion of our offense, so we can get a more balanced offense, a more balanced system,” Pearson said. “We’ve just been working hard, trying to get better each and every day, hoping we can fill those footsteps.”
But the two of them won’t be enough, and they’ll be the first to say it too. They haven’t had the experience as the featured receivers, nor do they have the same skill level as Watson. So, to make up for that, the Quakers are going to need production from everyone on the depth chart.
That depth chart has a lot of names that can contribute too. Guys like senior Justin Morrison, who switched from defensive back, and junior Kolton Huber, who recorded 10 catches while playing out of the slot last year. Two players wide receivers coach Rich Ulrich highlighted for their explosiveness were junior Tyler Herrick and Mike Akai.
"If it’s one guy, if it’s two guys, that’s great, but for me, I hope it’s three or four,” Ulrich said. "Nothing would be better than if we replace JWat with four guys that have 45, 50 catches in a season.”
With all of these receivers in the mix, the passing game is sure to look different. And there’s one particular word that head coach Ray Priore used to describe that change: unpredictable.
“A byproduct of [Watson leaving] I think is that offense will be a little less predictable, because everybody knew that 75 percent of the balls would be thrown his way,” he said. "So now we’ll be able to … do some different things schematically."
Watson’s on-the-field impact is definitely going to be missed by this team. But he meant more to the team than just catches and touchdowns.
“It was not as much just Justin the player, who was pretty awesome, but that leadership qualities that he had,” Priore said. “That part of him was really, really special… everybody watched him, he was the first one out at practice, he was the last one to leave.”
Watson embodied the “first in, last out” mentality. Even though he was the best player on the team, he worked tirelessly, not only to better himself, but to set an example for the rest of the team. After spending time under his tutelage, this year’s crop of leaders has taken that attitude to heart and has continued the tradition of hard-working wide outs.
So, who’s going to be the next Justin Watson?
The answer, at least right now, is no one. But that doesn’t mean this group isn’t capable of stepping up.