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At last, Plant High alumnus Christian Watson’s NFL potential fully blooms

The undersized, overlooked Panthers receiver has evolved into a first-round prospect.
North Dakota State receiver Christian Watson, a Plant High alumnus, catches a pass during the NFL scouting combine on March 3 in Indianapolis. Watson became the first receiver of his size (6-4, 208) to achieve a max-99 athleticism score at the event, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
North Dakota State receiver Christian Watson, a Plant High alumnus, catches a pass during the NFL scouting combine on March 3 in Indianapolis. Watson became the first receiver of his size (6-4, 208) to achieve a max-99 athleticism score at the event, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. [ CHARLIE NEIBERGALL | AP ]
Published Apr. 22|Updated Apr. 22

TAMPA — They’re numb to the late-bloomer narrative.

Christian Watson’s family and formative-year coaches insist this son of a former NFL safety and sibling of a former All-Big Ten linebacker has possessed the most athleticism of his brood practically since birth. Those mesmerizing metrics Watson posted at the NFL scouting combine? Equal parts inherent and incredible.

“He’s always been a freak of nature athletically,” said older brother Tre Watson, entering his second season with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. “I think he came out of the womb 1-percent body fat and with a six-pack (abdomen).”

If only his birthdate hadn’t clashed so intensely with college football’s recruiting calendar. The Plant High alumnus was only 16 — and still developing physically — during the spring prior to his senior year and turned 18 only a few days before graduating.

“The thing is, he was a late bloomer when it came to high school that you all saw,” said his mom, Christa Watson.

“He was not a late bloomer in athletics in his life. ... There were kids on Christian’s team that graduated with him that were 19. That’s a huge difference between a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old on the same (high school) team. There’s a very big difference developmentally.”

Those disparities have been conquered — and then some.

After five seasons at Football Championship Subdivision dynasty North Dakota State, a dazzling week of Senior Bowl workouts and an historic NFL scouting combine performance, Watson, 22, arrives at NFL draft weekend as a fully formed, 6-foot-4 first-round prospect.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” former Plant coach Robert Weiner said.

“The kind of stuff that it was really going to take to be a superstar in college and a guy who could play on Sundays, and not only play but play at a high level — that was all there, and that was all in place. You just had to have a little bit of vision for that. And maybe I had a little more inside scoop than other people in order to see it.”

Longtime ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. has Watson going to the Packers with the No. 22 overall pick. Fellow ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay projects him going to the Titans at No. 26. The Bucs, who pick at No. 27, are believed to be very intrigued.

“He’s ridiculously fast,” said former Bucs general manager Mark Dominik, now an analyst for SiriusXM NFL Radio. “I mean, that’s the way he plays — at least from what I’ve seen — because he’s got such explosiveness in his routes. ... I really like the way he competes and the way he fights for the football.”

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The evolution stuns those privy only to his four-year prep career.

Flashing potential before puberty

Former Plant High receiver Christian Watson, a projected first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, cut his football teeth as a grade-schooler with the New Tampa Wildcats.
Former Plant High receiver Christian Watson, a projected first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, cut his football teeth as a grade-schooler with the New Tampa Wildcats. [ Photo provided by Christa Watson ]

Watson, whose father Tim (who now goes by Tazim) spent parts of four seasons in the NFL, was playing youth football by age 4 and participating in competitive track at 7. Nicknamed “Scoot” for the way he scooted instead of crawled around as a baby, he also developed an affinity for climbing, jumping, flipping — anything requiring nerve and a nimble gene.

“Literally when he was probably 4 years old, he was faster than I was at 6 or 7,” Tre recalled.

“When he was a little kid, he was the best blocker anyone ever had seen in their lives and was pancaking kids every play. Again, he was a freak athlete, and all that strength and explosiveness in a little kid’s body, it doesn’t fare well for those other little kids.”

His athleticism developed far faster than his frame. Upon his arrival at Plant as a freshman, Watson had just turned 14, and wouldn’t hit 140 pounds until the following fall.

“I myself was a late bloomer, I didn’t get to what I would say was my grown-mannish size until my senior year,” added Tre Watson, who starred at Tampa Catholic. “But that’s also because we all have May-to-July birthdays, so we’re not the oldest in our classes.”

Further obscuring Watson’s potential was his peer group. In his class alone, four players — including fellow receiver Whop Philyor — would sign with Indiana. All were physically developing far faster, playing a bit more, and in turn providing more game tape to recruiters.

Meantime, Watson spent two seasons on Plant’s junior varsity, then managed only four catches (two for touchdowns) as a junior for a 9-3 Panthers team in 2015. By the spring prior to his senior season — a critical juncture on the recruiting timeline — Watson had eclipsed 6 feet and added some weight but still didn’t possess the size or game tape that turned heads.

“I can’t tell the University of Florida that they should take Christian Watson, who’s 5-foot-8 and 152 pounds. I think they would’ve laughed at me and I would’ve laughed at me,” Weiner said.

“But I did tell those guys going into his senior year, ‘I know you guys are all full (in terms of scholarship allotment), but this guy is going to be a superstar on Saturdays, and he is going to play on Sundays.’ I said it over and over and over again to anybody who would listen.”

Only North Dakota State seemed willing to lend an ear.

One offer, one pledge

North Dakota State receiver Christian Watson (left) was the youngest of Christa and Tim Watson's three kids. Tre (center) was an All-Big Ten linebacker at Maryland, and Lexi is a real-estate agent in Atlanta.
North Dakota State receiver Christian Watson (left) was the youngest of Christa and Tim Watson's three kids. Tre (center) was an All-Big Ten linebacker at Maryland, and Lexi is a real-estate agent in Atlanta. [ Photo provided by Christa Watson ]

Bison receivers coach Atif Austin, a Tarpon Springs High alumnus who had coached the Spongers, had spotted Watson that spring in 2016 and knew a hidden gem when he saw one.

North Dakota State would be the only program to offer Watson. As 2016 progressed, he turned 17, sprouted a few more inches, added about 20 pounds of what Weiner called “really, really good muscle weight,” and reduced his 40-yard dash time from 4.7 to 4.47 seconds.

His senior year, he had 23 catches for 393 yards and eight touchdowns, posting a team-best 17.1 yards per catch as the speedster who took the top off the opposing defense.

The five ensuing seasons with the Bison (career average of 20.4 yards per catch, 57 plays of 20 or more yards, four Football Championship Subdivision national titles) now have been well chronicled. So has that combine performance, where Watson became the first receiver of his size (6-4, 208) to achieve a max-99 athleticism score, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

At last, the athletic and anatomical potential has come to full fruition.

Or full bloom.

“It was just a matter of time for him to grow into himself, who he is as a young man and as a football player, and obviously into his body as well,” Tre Watson said.

“And now that that’s happened, everyone’s really seeing it, and it’s just getting started for him.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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