Watkins turns 27 next November. He was 22 before he ever played a down of football. Intent on pursuing a career as a firefighter back in B.C., he learned from his fire captain that he'd have better career prospects with a degree from a fire sciences program. There was such a program at Butte Junior College, in Chico, Calif. Watkins enrolled.
A friend suggested he should go out for football - maybe Butte would waive the tuition or something. Watkins found his way down to the field. Now, after 2 years at Butte and 2 more years at Baylor, he projects as one of the top guards in the 2011 draft, maybe not a first-rounder because of his age, but very possibly a second- or third-round pick.
"He is a strong guy,'' said Watkins' Baylor (and South Senior Bowl) teammate, defensive tackle Phil Taylor. "We call him 'Grandpa.' He's a grown man out there.''
Watkins, 6-3, acknowledged the obvious yesterday - "I didn't think anything like this would be happening'' when he went out for the Butte team "just for fun and recreation.''
He said he "never really watched football or cared for it'' growing up, but after he figured out how to put on the pads, he found out he liked it just fine. And it liked him. After 2 years at left tackle for Butte, Watkins found he could continue his education for free at places such as Hawaii, Cal, Arkansas or Baylor.
Watkins chose Baylor, where he succeeded left tackle Jason Smith (the guy who was drafted second overall in 2009 by the Rams, not the former Flyers captain, with whose career Watkins surely was more familiar.)
One of the questions he gets a lot is whether he regrets not taking the game up earlier. If Watkins were turning 22 in November, instead of 27, he might very well be a first-rounder, looking forward to a much larger signing bonus.
"I love everything that's happened to this point,'' he said. "I wouldn't change a thing.''
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock acknowledged he didn't know much about Watkins until Mayock started preparing for his Senior Bowl practice broadcasts.
"I put the tape on and he jumped out at me,'' Mayock said. "He's heavy-handed [meaning Watkins 'punches' well], he finishes, and he's nasty; he reminds me a lot of the [John] Moffitt kid from Wisconsin. I look at the two of them and I think they're both interior starters. I think they're centers or guards, and they're starters in the league.''
Mayock said Watkins "has been coached really well . . . he can bend and he's really naturally strong. He's got what they call a 6-inch punch, and he can jar you with that 6 inches.''
Taylor, Watkins' fellow Baylor captain this past season, also has a complicated story, though his is more common in college football. Taylor, too, is making up for lost time, after being thrown off the Penn State team in 2008 following a fight at a fraternity party the previous year. After transferring to Baylor, where he had to sit out the 2008 season, Taylor ballooned to more than 360 pounds. He showed up in Mobile this week at 6-3, 337, and has been a consistent force, controlling the line of scrimmage.
Taylor said Baylor defensive coordinator Brian Norwood, the secondary coach at Penn State when Taylor was there, helped him make an easy transition.
"D-tackle is d-tackle, anywhere,'' Taylor said, when asked about the adjustment.
Taylor has said in the past that he feels he was made an example of, was kicked off the Penn State team for something that hadn't caused other players to be dismissed. He said yesterday he never felt he was close to imperiling his NFL dream.
"It wasn't that big of a deal. I just knew I had let some things slip past me. When I got down to Baylor, I made it right,'' he said.
But Taylor also said that he gained a greater appreciation of the privileges he has been given when he went on a trip to Kenya with the sports ministry at Baylor.
"We were down there for 2 weeks, to help out kids. It humbled me a lot, to see how other people live,'' he said.
Mayock said yesterday that Taylor has shown "he's a better player than I thought he was.''
"I saw him on tape, and I thought he went hot and cold, which is typical of defensive linemen who weigh more than 300 pounds,'' Mayock said. "However, this week I think he's in shape. I think 337 is about as high as he wants to be; I think he needs to stay there. I think quickness separates him right now, for a guy that big.''
Taylor might project as a two-gap, 3-4 nose tackle, but he said yesterday he played mostly one-gap at Baylor and feels he would be just as comfortable in a 4-3.
Mayock said Taylor's past - which Taylor acknowledged was a topic of interest with teams speaking with him here - will play a role in where he is drafted. Or, more correctly, how he handles those questions will play a role.
"It is a long [draft] process, and it's going to play out not just on the field for this kid, it's going to play out in all the meeting rooms, where they look at you and say, 'Why? What did you do? Can you keep your weight down? How tough are you? What's your work ethic?' That's going to be important to that kid,'' Mayock said.
Taylor said he would like to get down to 330 for the NFL Scouting Combine next month.
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