Rookie wide receiver Justin Watson has quickly made a name for himself in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers' fifth-round pick of the 2018 draft, Watson isn't necessarily assured a roster spot and with a receiving corps as deep as the Bucs', it looked to be an even steeper climb for the young player.
That pressure hasn't stop him.
He has now become one of the Bucs' most visible receivers and had himself a game in the Bucs' second preseason matchup with the Tennessee Titans over the weekend. Watson scored his first NFL touchdown on a fade route placed right in the corner of the end zone by quarterback Jameis Winston, who he's already developed a strong rapport with. Watson can routinely be seen after practice getting extra reps in, whether it's with Winston or even the JUGS machine. This workhorse attitude is nothing new for his college coach, Patrick Ulrich, who is the University of Pennsylvania's wide receivers coach. Yes, the Ivy League institution.
"That's how he approaches everything," Ulrich, called 'Coach Rick' by Watson, said upon hearing of the extra work Watson has been giving himself. "He goes on the field and he's that one guy that you want to coach because he's the first guy that jumps up in line. He's the guy giving words of encouragement and inspiration to teammates. He goes into the weight room and he's the hardest working kid and that's what you see if you observe him. The one thing I was telling the scouts was this is one of those kids where whoever picks him up, whoever drafts him or whoever gets him to sign a free agent contract, you get him on the field and you deal with him for two or three days, and this is a kid that you'll never let ownership get rid of."
Ulrich knew Watson would be a major contributor almost instantaneously. Even fresh out of high school, Watson excelled quickly. He made sure the coaches knew exactly who he was and what he could bring to the team.
"It was obvious that we couldn't keep him out of the game plan and not utilize his skill as a freshman," said Ulrich. "It was one of those things where he had an immediate impact on what we were doing offensively."
And he did. Watson holds almost every major receiving record at Penn and owns quite a few Ivy League records, as well. He's the first player in Ivy League history with a receiving touchdown in all 10 games of a season. He has the most consecutive games in Ivy League history with a reception (40) as well as the most 100+ yard games with 19. The list goes on, believe it or not. But it's just part of the grind for him. And it's not something he likes to call attention to, according to Ulrich. He's much more the type to deflect any sort of praise and put it on his coaches or teammates. He's the ultimate team guy.
"It's his mom and dad and his upbringing in Pittsburgh," said Ulrich. "Just that roll up your sleeves, get to work and not worry about who's watching you-type attitude. That's him. What you see is what you get. Every game, he stepped up a little bit bigger and I think he caught a pass in every game that he played. He was at Penn for 40 games, which is limited based on the number of games we're allowed per year, but that also says something about how he works his body because there might be one or two teams that hadn't caught on but everybody for the most part knew that if you contained Justin Watson, if you could shut him down or do certain things or if you hit him hard enough he might not be able to play. He played in every game and never got hurt."
Ulrich expects Watson to bring the same work ethic and drive to the Bucs. And he has. Though, as with any rookie, there's been an adjustment period. Watson perhaps has it even harder than some of his drafted teammates, with the exception of offensive lineman and Division II product Alex Cappa, given that Watson is coming from an FCS program. He was a big fish in a small pond, so getting used to going up against NFL talent is not as automatic for him as it is for others.
"[Penn] is a different level," Ulrich said. "It's not Alabama, it's not USC so you have to get accustomed to the speed of the game and maybe that corner or those people in coverage, you may have beaten them off the line of scrimmage or you may have a step on them but that's going to be made up very quickly. It's not Dartmouth or Central Connecticut anymore."
Ulrich has kept up with Watson through his transition into the NFL. Watson went back to Penn after being drafted and Ulrich was all ears to hear how his former player was adapting. He isn't worried about any of Watson's mechanics, he just thinks the biggest hurdle with be, of all things, a new 'dictionary.'
"During his first time coming back from Tampa, I asked him about getting into the playbook and how much of the playbook are they were giving him. He said, 'I can pick all the stuff up.' We asked him to do some of those things like learning all three of those receiver positions in our offense. Mentally, he'll be able to deal with that, but he said the biggest change was, yeah, there was a lot of information but he just has to be able to consolidate that this 'switch' means 'flex' in the Bucs offense. He just has to change his dictionary. Every word we've given him, he'll probably get from Tampa but the words are not all going to be the same."
Judging from Watson's performance thus far in the preseason, it seems he's been able to translate everything just fine.