Roughly a couple months removed from his final college game, Tre Watson checked his email regularly. Teammates texted him reminders to do so. The hope for the former Maryland linebacker was that waiting in his inbox would be an invitation to the NFL Combine.
Instead, he got nothing.
That prompted him to call the NFL scouting service to try and get an update on his combine status. He was told that he was still being evaluated, so basically nothing. On the next open date to call the scouting service, Watson finally got something.
A hard “no.”
“That’s about as firm as it gets,” Watson told Saturday Tradition. “It was definitely surprising and displeasing at the time…there were people who were more shocked than I was, assuming that I was guaranteed (a combine invite). Obviously that just wasn’t the case for whatever reason.”
Watson and his supporters had good reason to believe that was a shoo-in for Indianapolis. He was a First-Team All-B1G linebacker after leading the conference in tackles and interceptions. Phil Steele and the FWAA even named Watson a Second-Team All-American.
“If they want more than the best, I don’t know where exactly you think you’re gonna get that from,” Watson said. “It is what it is.”
What it was was just another head-scratching, out-of-his control event to cap off Watson’s college career. In a way, it was fitting. Perhaps scouts didn’t think that Watson would run as well as the other linebackers or that because of a record number of underclassmen declarations, he was lost in the shuffle. Watson never got a definitive answer.
But if there’s any question about how he’ll overcome a weird, unforeseen situation, well, Watson already provided a definitive answer to that.
Five head coaches, 4 position coaches and 3 coordinators. Two player mistreatment scandals, 2 fired coaches and 1 teammate death.
There’s another bizarre stat that sums up Watson’s college experience, that he didn’t even realize until he thought about it a little more. He committed to play for 2 different head coaches, and he didn’t play a single game for either of them.
“I don’t think you can get any worse or more shocking than the things that I’ve been through. Lost a coach a week before a game. Lost a coach in the middle of training camp, lost a teammate,” Watson said. “What can surpass that?”
To understand how Watson essentially become the college football version of Forrest Gump — albeit one with some not as favorable things to have a front row seat for — it makes most sense to go to Watson’s redshirt junior season at Illinois in 2017.
Following a 2016 season in which he registered 102 tackles (2nd on the team), he had hopes of taking the next step as a redshirt junior. But he tweaked his knee early in the 2017 season and subsequently slid down the depth chart. Despite Watson’s Tampa roots, there was no loyalty from Lovie Smith.
Former Maryland LB Tre Watson
It was Tim Beckman who recruited Watson to come to Champaign. Watson had hopes of playing for him as a redshirt freshman until the player mistreatment scandal broke, resulting in Beckman’s firing a week before the start of the 2015 season. And when it looked like Bill Cubit was going to be the full-time replacement after he shed his interim tag at the end of that year, Illinois made the out-of-nowhere decision to make Smith the highest-paid coach in Illinois athletics history.
So as Watson struggled to work his way back into favor with Smith’s staff in 2017, he realized that he needed to spend his final year of eligibility elsewhere.
“The whole Illinois aspect of my career, it didn’t go smoothly at all from just a standpoint of what you’d want as a football player,” Watson said. “No continuity on the coaching staff with the head coach and with my position coaches. I had to learn multiple defenses, I had to build all these relationships over and over again.
“Once I thought after that redshirt sophomore year that things were heading in the right direction, it just tailed off…the program just wasn’t a place where I felt that I was being developed and maximized as a football player. It was time to move on.”
Watson thought he’d head to Maryland, where he’d get to replace tackling machine Jermaine Carter Jr. and play for a defensive-minded head coach in D.J. Durkin. Watson would keep his head down, get the playing time he felt he was robbed of at Illinois and he’d have a drama-free path to the NFL.
Yeah, about that.
Former Maryland LB Tre Watson
From the death of teammate Jordan McNair to the firing of Durkin over player mistreatment accusations, nothing about what Watson experienced in College Park was typical. Three years after Watson dealt with losing his head coach in August, history repeated itself. Well, technically Durkin was only suspended in August, which meant the cloud over the program lingered until his firing in the middle of the season.
But nothing about Watson’s play on the field suggested he was distracted. He was ready to make an impact from the jump. Nine tackles and a huge fourth quarter interception to help Maryland stun Texas was a solid way to start the year. Eleven tackles and a pick-6 in a blowout win against Minnesota in the Terps’ B1G opener wasn’t bad, either.
By season’s end, Watson registered double digit tackles or an interception in 9 of Maryland’s 12 games.
“With everything that was going on off the field around me,” Watson said, “being able to go on Saturdays between the lines was just a moment of clarity where I have one job and I can just do that.”
The beauty of living in a warm-weather state is that Watson can spend most of his pre-draft time at home. Well, he’s actually staying with his girlfriend and her parents at their house in Tampa. It’s close to the Applied Science and Performance Institute (ASPI), where Watson has been training.
It also worked out that Watson got to stay close to home at the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla. There, Watson impressed. Not surprisingly, he led the East with a team-high 9 tackles and a sack.
That, however, has been Watson’s only real pre-draft showcase so far. Because Maryland lost its final 2 games, he didn’t get to play in a bowl game (his college career actually ended after he was ejected for targeting against Penn State). He didn’t receive a Senior Bowl invite, either. Getting snubbed from the combine was just the latest strange curveball thrown Watson’s way.
Former Maryland LB Tre Watson
Watson didn’t sulk over that, though he did make sure to watch the combine closely, especially the linebackers. He was impressed with how well they moved in the 40-yard dash. Four linebackers ran in the 4.4-second range. Watson admitted that even if he got the invite to Indianapolis, he wouldn’t have put up a number like that, nor does he expect to at Maryland’s Pro Day on March 27.
“I’m not gonna sit here and tell you I’m gonna run a 4.4 because that’s not realistic. That’s not helping me in any way. It’s really just a waste of time and a waste of thought,” Watson said. “I feel like for someone who played the way I played, a low 4.7 would be a very comfortable time. Dipping into the high 4.6s would really be something that I’d be really comfortable with.”
That’s not a random number. Watson pointed out that last year’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year was South Carolina State linebacker Darius Leonard, who earned first-team All-Pro honors after leading the league in tackles. How fast did Leonard run his 40, you ask? Not a shade faster than 4.7.
So no, Watson won’t fret if his pro day 40 doesn’t match the performance of the linebackers at the combine.
“I trust in my ability to play football above all else. At the end of the day, that’s what’s gonna carry me the furthest,” he said. “I know ultimately that I’ll be contributing on some roster this fall, helping some team make a run towards a Super Bowl ring.”
In a few short weeks, Watson will be surrounded by friends and family. He anticipates they’ll have some sort of get-together for Day 2 and Day 3 of the draft. If and when his name is called, the same kid who once idolized skill-players like Michael Vick will officially begin his professional career chasing them.
It’ll be Watson’s turn to be on the receiving end of a potentially life-changing phone call.
Only this time, he’ll get something better than a hard “no.”