CLEMSON – From a football standpoint, Clemson linebackers coach David Blackwell never worried much about Nick Watkins. The outside linebacker is big, strong and has nice speed. But away from field, Watkins was one of the biggest concerns for Blackwell.
Watkins’ talent shined through at Will linebacker in 2005. He was second on the team in tackles and was a star on special teams. He had put forth the type of season that had coaches anticipating an even better year from him in 2006.
Through the first four games of the season, Watkins leads the team in tackles with 31, 24 of which are solo. He also has four tackles for loss and a sack.
But when spring rolled around last year, Watkins went from being a sure starter to third team. There were even questions as to whether he’d even be on the team. His grades and mindset had become that much of a problem.
“We’ve never been disappointed with his play. He’s always played good,” Blackwell said. “Coming out of last season, we really felt like Nick played well. We were not disappointed with his play coming out of football season. He was probably our best coverage linebacker.
“But sometimes, the off-the-field stuff puts a bad taste in your mouth about a guy as a player. It does impact how you look at him sometimes.”
The three major issues with Watkins, a redshirt junior, were his grades, his worries about the wellbeing of his family in New Orleans and the death of his older brother, who had died in the middle of last season.
Watkins is from New Orleans, and like most residents in that city, his house was ruined by the flood following Hurricane Katrina. As a result, his mother, sister and brother were forced to leave the Crescent City and take residence in Atlanta.
“It was a big burden,” Watkins said. “A lot of guys have problems on the team, but I am the only guy on the team from New Orleans and I am the only person going through that whole situation with the hurricane and the after effects of it. That runs in my head every day. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my family and what they’re going through.”
While it’s only natural for people to worry about their family, athletes are required to be able to separate their sporting life from their real life. Watkins had a difficult time doing that.
His grades, which had never been a top priority, were a real problem. It seemed school was the farthest thing from his mind.
There were thoughts among the coaches that he might be academically ineligible for this season.
It was those fears of his eligibility that pushed him to third team and caused Watkins to evaluate the situation.
“Coach Blackwell and I are so close, that he’s like a father-figure to me,” he said. “It was kind of a tough-love thing. It was like, ‘Are y’all really doing this to me? I’m really third team?’
“At first I kind of felt bad, but I realized after I thought about it that it was all my fault. I couldn’t place the blame on nobody else but myself.”
Fortunately for him and the team, he managed to put forth a good effort during summer school, which got his grades them to where he needed them to be.
And through the early part of this season, his attention to school has been steadfast.
“I spend more time (at the academic support center for athletes) than I do at my house,” Watkins said. “This is pretty much like my second home. When I’m not at practice, I’m over here studying and showing that I’m serious about my academics.”
The good news is he doesn’t have to concern himself with that anymore. His family just moved back into the same house in New Orleans some three weeks ago.
Now, all Watkins has to seemingly concern himself with is school and football. And Blackwell believes there’s much room for improvement in each area.
“With him, there’s always been another ceiling he could play at,” Blackwell said. “But you always felt like there was that extra level he could get to. Instead of being just a solid player, he could elevate into being an above average player or a great player. …
“His stay in the doghouse was more off-the-field than it was football related. But he can sure jump back in there real quick if doesn’t want to go to class or study hall.”
Watkins doesn’t see that being an issue ever again, especially now that he was pushed into a leadership role due to all the injuries to veterans on defense.
“I just want the guys around me to know that I’m serious about being a leader and that I’m serious about this team and what we’re trying to do,” he said. “I’ve had to change a few things, like my attitude. I’m a little bit more focused on things.”