The Florida Gators will start a pair of potential first-round picks at cornerback in 2013, neither of whom led their position in interceptions last season. That distinction belongs to senior Jaylen Watkins, arguably the least-hyped playmaker on Florida’s defense.
Watkins, who started 11 games for the Gators in 2012, does not need the spotlight and attention. Instead of hearing his name on television or reading it online in stories about prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft, he has kept his head in his playbook and his eyes glued to game film in order to improve on the 39 tackles (26 solo), three interceptions and eight pass breakups he registered last season.
“Just personally, I focused on the small things that I didn’t do well last year – eye control, finishing plays down the field, tackling,” he said.
The rest of the offseason, Watkins has served as a veteran mentor for the underclassmen, working as a coach on the field in between reps, when he was healthy enough to take them, of course.
“We have a lot of young guys that haven’t seen the field. They don’t know what to expect. But I kind of take them under my wing and help them and guide them through the offseason and through camp even though I was injured,” he explained.
Watkins competed for a starting safety role this offseason but saw those jobs go to redshirt junior Cody Riggs and redshirt freshman Marcus Maye.
Sophomore Brian Poole was named the starting nickel cornerback when the first fall depth chart was released on Monday, leaving Watkins to split time at right cornerback and fill in wherever else necessary.
Being familiar with every position in the secondary has allowed Watkins to be versatile and a player head coach Will Muschamp believes he can count on no matter where he places him on the field during a game.
“I think Jaylen has done an outstanding job,” Muschamp said of Watkins’s work this offseason. “He’s a guy that can play corner, can play safety, can play nickel, can play dime. He’s a major contributor on special teams.
“He’s been a very vocal guy in a positive way. And I think he’s one of the team leaders of our football team. I don’t think there’s any question when you walk into that locker room the respect he has of his teammates and how he carries and handles himself, he’s a first-class young man.”
Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin agrees with his boss, noting that Watkins may not get the respect he deserves but will continue to make a name for himself this season.
“The other two corners get talked about quite a bit, and rightfully so,” Durkin said last week, “but Jaylen is a pretty darn good corner himself and he’s had a really good camp for us. He’ll play a lot of football because he’s a guy that can play many positions.”
Watkins does not like to talk about himself. Instead, he’s happy to dish out compliments for younger players, guys that will actually be taking snaps from him during the season.
He believes junior Loucheiz Purifoy is embracing the spotlight and using it as motivation, doing whatever he can to ensure that he plays up to the level of the hype.
“He’s going harder than he did before, and I thought that was impossible, but he still does,” Watkins said. “He’s just trying to bring his game up to another level by finishing plays down the field. He is [already] a great tackler, so it’s just the small things.”
Watkins has also taken a liking to freshman Vernon Hargreaves III, a player he said he is trying to mentor in the way Janoris Jenkins and Matt Elam showed him the ropes during his first two years at Florida.
“His knowledge of the game [is great]. He’s pretty up there to be a freshman,” he said. “He’s pretty much grasped the entire defense and he’s embracing all the roles that the coaches are giving him. He’s in his playbook and trying to get better every day.”
Having spent his whole football playing career being compared to his younger brother, Clemson star wide receiver Sammy Watkins, Jaylen Watkins is used to not getting all of the attention he deserves.
He prefers to let his play do the talking.
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