Unfortunately, things didn’t go according to plan for the Mt. Laurel, N.J., native. After bruising his back making a play in fall camp, Watkins endured a freak injury when he dropped a weight on his foot, breaking one of his toes in several places.
“It just got the point last year where I was like, ‘I don’t even know what’s going on,’” Watkins said. “It’s just the worst luck I’ve ever had. I’ve never really been hurt [or] missed time during the season for an injury. So, to do that, hurt my back and then break my toe, it was just one thing on top of the other. It was frustrating, very frustrating.”
But Watkins has rebounded, and what a rebound it has been. Opening spring camp just fighting for playing time, the senior made the most out of his chance to practice with the first team after an injury sidelined starter Dontez Sanders for the entire camp.
Watkins continued his assault on a starting job this fall and made enough of an impression on the UW coaching staff to earn a spot as the starting sam linebacker to open the season.
“He’s our starting sam linebacker right now,” defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said. “In the spring, when Tez was out, he did some good things, and when Tez came out in the fall, [LaMarr] really played well again, so what we decided to do is get him out on the field at the sam position. He played it early on in his career and he’s looked pretty good at it to this point so far.”
The new-look linebacking corps now includes Watkins playing sam, Sanders playing will, and Mark Zalewski, last year’s starter at sam, moving over to the mike position. For the time being, sophomore Andy Crooks, who ended last season as the starting mike linebacker, is the odd man out.
For now, Watkins is happy with his return to the starting lineup, though he knows he must earn the right to keep the role. But with the trials and tribulations he endured last season, don’t expect Watkins to relinquish his starting role without a fight.
“The goal was always to come back and start,” Watkins said.
“Last year, I think I just kind of closed myself up, and I just tried to keep focused on next year. I’ve always got next year. I just tried to stay positive for next year and everything is working out, so I’m pretty happy.”
Team selects four captains
Head coach Barry Alvarez announced this year’s team captains last Friday after a vote by the players earlier that afternoon.
The senior duo of center Donovan Raiola and fullback Matt Bernstein were chosen as the offensive captains, while senior cornerback Brett Bell and junior linebacker Mark Zalewski will represent the defense.
Raiola, a consensus honorable-mention all-Big Ten selection last year, received attention earlier this summer when he was named to the Rimington Trophy (nation’s most outstanding center) and Lombardi Award (nation’s top lineman) watch lists.
Bernstein is widely considered one of the county’s top fullbacks and was chosen as the No. 2 fullback in the nation by “Street and Smith.”
A 12-game starter last year, Bell shared the team lead in interceptions (3) and pass breakups (10) with Jim Leonhard. The junior was also an all-Big Ten honorable-mention selection by the coaches.
In his first season as a starter last year, Zalewski was a pleasant surprise, recording 11.5 tackles for loss and finishing fifth on the team with 55 tackles en route to an all-Big Ten honorable-mention selection by the media.
Players were allowed to vote for one person, offense selecting offensive captains and defense selecting defensive captains, but also had to place their own names on the ballot.
“It makes them put a little thought into it because they have ownership in that vote,” Alvarez said. “Tell me who you’re going to vote for, and let me see you put some thought into it.”
Making the grade
Alvarez also revealed that six former walk-ons will be scholarship athletes this fall.
Senior tight end Joel Nellis, sophomore cornerback Ben Strickland, junior safety Zach Hampton and sophomore long-snapper Steve Johnson all earned scholarships for the fall.
Two other athletes — redshirt freshman Bill Rentmeester and redshirt sophomore Casey Hogan — had their scholarship promises fulfilled when they were added as scholarship athletes. During the recruiting process, Rentmeester was promised a scholarship after his first year, while Hogan was promised one after his second.