Amid transition and tragedy, Tre Watson flourishes

In a year of grief and turmoil at Maryland, the Tampa Catholic alumnus had an all-conference year
Maryland linebacker Tre Watson tackles Illinois quarterback M.J. Rivers II in the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Maryland linebacker Tre Watson tackles Illinois quarterback M.J. Rivers II in the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Published Jan. 16, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG ― He left the University of Illinois last winter armed with a degree and some honed football chops. In more ways than Tre Watson could’ve fathomed, this turbulent college experience truly had prepared him for life.

But not death.

Five months after Watson’s arrival at Maryland, where he hoped to take his game to another stratosphere in a graduate-transfer season, the world of he and his new teammates was forever altered. Offensive lineman Jordan McNair died on June 13, two weeks after suffering a heatstroke during a team workout. He was 19.

“There’s no way you can prepare for something that hard,” Watson said.

“All of us really just came together...and (were) there for each other in what is as tough a time as you’ll ever experience, and something you never expect to have happen as a football player.”

The fallout has been well-chronicled: investigations into McNair’s death, a scathing ESPN report of a “toxic culture” at Maryland under coach D.J. Durkin, and ultimately Durkin’s dismissal. Hardly the type of setting conducive to a career season.

Watson had one anyway.

While death was a whole new ordeal to Maryland’s veteran outside linebacker, dysfunction was not. Watson, who had pieced together a solid career at Illinois against a backdrop of upheaval, churned through the chaos at Maryland and became a first-team All-Big Ten performer.

He led the conference in tackles per game (9.6) and interceptions (five), and earned Academic All-Big Ten honors for the fourth time. His five picks tied Maryland’s single-season record for a linebacker.

“He brought All-American talent to the team,” said Terrapins running back Ty Johnson, teaming again with Watson (for the East) in Saturday’s East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana Field.

“He was just a guy that was ready every single day, no matter what. If he was feeling down or sick or anything, he was bringing it every day.”

Saturday’s game, before what likely will be a hearty Watson cheering section, represents another chance for the onetime three-star recruit to have his agility, instincts and physicality documented. Not that he hasn’t put plenty down on tape already.

In his Terps debut, a 34-29 upset of Texas, Watson had nine tackles and a critical fourth-quarter pick. In a 52-51 overtime loss to Ohio State, he recorded a team-best 12 tackles. If any blemish on his game surfaced, it was a propensity for being too aggressive; Watson was ejected for targeting three times.

“I call him the head-buster, man,” Johnson said. “I’ve seen him blow up linemen, I’ve seen him blow up me, other running backs, I’ve seen him do it all. If you saw the Michigan game at Michigan, the goal-line (situations), he stuck Karan Higdon like, twice.”

What doesn’t necessarily jump off Watson’s tape is his ability to flourish amid utter chaos, an attribute that could endear him to prospective NFL employers.

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By his final game at Maryland, a 38-3 loss at Penn State, Watson had played for five college head coaches (including interims) and four position coaches. Moreover, he never played for a winning team in college. Toss in the death of a teammate, and he easily could’ve moped his way out of Maryland.

He chose dominance instead of disillusionment. Watson leaves college with a pair of 100-tackle seasons and a community health degree.

“It was just a whirlwind, man,” Watson said.

“Ups, downs. The highest of the highs, the lowest of the lows, man. But at the end of the day, I accomplished what I set out to as a football player. I put myself in a position to make a living playing the game that I love to play. ... I became a man.”

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.