The Wolverine

December 2018

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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DECEMBER 2018 THE WOLVERINE 33 in a Nov. 3, 42-7 win over Penn State. It was his second pick-six of the year — the first was a 46-yarder against Maryland — and the third interception of his career. "He's been great. Outstanding," head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "We love the pick-six. What a great thing, [part of a great] football game for our team." Michigan entered its final two regu- lar-season games tied for the national lead in interception returns for scores with Watson's pair, and one each from junior cornerback Lavert Hill and ju- nior safety Josh Metellus. "It takes a lot of discipline to play cornerback in this system," Harbaugh explained. "There's so much man- to-man coverage. It takes great ath- leticism to be able to play man-to-man coverage in the secondary. "There are really no plays off, plus when they recognize it's run, they've got to get involved in stopping it. "It's easier for a player when they know where they're going, as opposed to a player that doesn't know where their opponent is going. … Compare wide receivers to defensive backs in terms of that position and the athleti- cism needed." Watson became part of a special group with his second pick-six of the season. Only four players in program history have returned two or more in- terceptions for touchdowns — junior teammate Hill (2017-18), Thom Darden (1969-71) and Lance Dottin (1989-91) are the others. Only Watson (2018) and Darden (1971) have had two pick-sixes in a single season. Watson's outstanding play started early this year. He picked off a pass in a 24-17, season-opening loss to Notre Dame, and a week later earned the team's defensive player of the game honors in a blowout win over Western Michigan, breaking up three passes. Watson took some heat last year when giving up plays in coverage. De- fensive coordinator Don Brown said it wasn't warranted then, adding his fifth-year senior earns all the praise he's getting now. "There were people that were ultra- critical of him a year ago, I thought un- fairly. This year, nobody's been critical because the guy's played unbelievably well," Brown said. "He's put himself in position where I've had people ap- proach me and say, 'Could he play nickel linebacker in the NFL? Do you see him as a corner?' "I think he's somewhere between a corner-safety. He's certainly a guy that's now on peoples' radar at the next level." Watson is never going to draw atten- tion to himself, one reason he doesn't get the publicity he deserves. He's not a huge talker in practice, either, which is fine with Mike Zordich. The team's cor- nerbacks coach is interested in results, no matter how his player gets them. Through 10 games, Watson had racked up 30 tackles (2.5 for loss), three picks and six pass breakups for a team- high nine passes defended. "Experience, leadership values, leads by example — he's definitely that kind of guy," Zordich said. "He's not a vocal guy, but in practice, he works his rear end off every day. "Coach Brown and I will watch film together in the mornings from the practice the night before, and there's B-Wat, causing some kind of problems somewhere. He works hard in practice, and it gets noticed." All the talk coming into the season was on Hill and junior corner David Long, who is also having a great year. After 11 weeks, Long was PFF's No. 24 corner nationally in coverage grade at 83.8 (minimum 400 snaps); Watson wasn't far behind at 79.6 (51st). Besides Watson, safety Tyree Kin- nel is the only other senior in the sec- ondary. Watson has joined the team captain Kinnel in becoming a leader in the defensive backfield, and Wat- son provided another spark with his pick-six against Penn State. That play helped him secure defensive player of the game honors for the third game this year. "I thought we played really well against Penn State, and he's a big part of the reason why," Kinnel said. "He's one of the old guys around here, and everyone respects him. Everyone looks up to him around the building, and he's been working so hard through his five years here." It's gotten to the point that the way Watson has been playing has become expected, junior linebacker and cap- tain Devin Bush Jr. said, noting Watson has been consistent — last year, in the offseason, through spring ball and in fall camp. "He's developed a lot as a leader, making sure we're doing everything we've got to do, taking over the cor- ners room as a leader," junior line- backer Khaleke Hudson added. "He's a great leader for us, and I really like him." They all do, and rightfully so. "He's grown, technique-wise. He's grown into a leader," Kinnel said. "... With me and him being the leaders back there, we just try to motivate … and he's improved so much individu- ally. I'm excited for him." ❏ Only four players in Michigan football his- tory have two or more career pick-sixes, and Watson is one of only two to perform the feat in the same season. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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