Birds' o-line coach knows where Watkins is coming from

Posted: May 02, 2011

HOWARD MUDD was talking to Danny Watkins the other day, shortly after the Eagles' first-round pick arrived at the NovaCare Complex to meet his new employers and be introduced to Philadelphia's warm and fuzzy media.

Mudd, the Eagles' new offensive-line coach, is a big-time motorcycle enthusiast who, even at his advanced age (69) and even with a balky back, loves to go on motorcycle adventures during that small window of free time football coaches have in the early summer before two-a-days call.

Last year, during a brief retirement that lasted all of one season, he motorcycled around Watkins' neck of the woods up in western Canada.

"I showed him some pictures of the trip we took up there," Mudd said. "We were in his hometown - Kelowna. I showed him a picture. It was a scenic picture. He looked at it and said, 'You gotta be kidding me.' He pointed to a spot in the picture and said, 'There was a big fire right there. I helped put this forest fire out.' "

As you probably are already aware, Watkins isn't your typical NFL rookie. He's 26 years old, 27 in November. Didn't start playing football until he was 22. Grew up on a playing diet of hockey and rugby, not football.

Spent 5 years as a firefighter in Kelowna, then decided to enroll in a California junior college to study fire sciences. Who even knew there was such a thing as fire sciences?

Anyway, the football coach at the JC encouraged Watkins to come out for football. He was good enough at it to eventually earn a scholarship to Baylor. Now he's a first-round draft pick who is expected to be a season-opening starter for the Eagles, assuming there ends up being a season to open.

"It's amazing," Mudd said. "I mean, he never played football. Didn't even know what it was. When he went to junior college, he didn't know what a spike was. They were trying to kill the clock the first year he was playing there, and they were yelling [to the quarterback], 'Spike it, spike it.' He's like, 'What's that?'

"The guy across the line from him told him his quarterback was going to spike the ball and he still didn't get it. He got [ticked] off and hit the guy and got a 15-yard penalty. To go from there and pick up the game in that short amount of time is impressive. You've got to be very tough to do that."

You're probably reading that last comment and saying, "Tough? What's tough got to do with it?" But Mudd's definition of toughness is a little different from most people's. It's not knocking somebody else down. It's getting knocked down yourself and then getting back up. Again. And again.

"I have a funny definition of tough," he said. "It's how much you can take, not how much you can give out. You mistake, a lot of times, aggression for toughness. This guy is a very tough-minded guy. He hangs in there. If he has a bad play, he doesn't go in the tank. He might have two bad plays. He might have two in a row. But he keeps fighting to do his job. He's determined, driven. All those kinds of words. But you see it. He's ready to go do it again."

Mudd, a former Pro Bowl offensive lineman with the 49ers and Bears, spent 36 years as an NFL offensive-line coach before retiring after the 2009 season. He has enjoyed coaching a lot of players over the years, but he can't think of anyone he looked more forward to coaching than Watkins.

"I'm really fortunate as a coach to get a guy of this quality," he said. "I haven't had this experience for quite a while. To go and acquire a guy that I know, or at least am very confident, in how he's going to perform and fit in."

When coaches and scouts evaluate players, many of them tend to compare players to someone else they coached or scouted or watched. Mudd is no different.

When he watched tape of Watkins in the weeks leading up to the draft, he reminded him of Pete Kendall, who spent 13 seasons as a guard and center with the Seahawks, Cardinals, Jets and Redskins before retiring after the 2008 season. Mudd was the offensive-line coach in Seattle in 1996 when the Seahawks selected Kendall in the first round with the 21st overall pick.

"Danny's a lot like Pete," Mudd said. "A tough-minded guy. Real strong, stout body. Very smart. Very, very smart. When Pete was coming out of Boston College, I used him as the high-water mark [with the other offensive linemen in the 1996 draft]. I started with him and compared everybody to Pete. I did that with this guy, too. We saw this guy play. We kept trying to find [flaws]. We kept thinking, 'Geez, there's got to be something wrong with this guy.' But we couldn't find anything."

Watkins played left tackle at Baylor, but the Eagles plan to move him inside to one of the guard spots. Mudd said he is more suited to play inside.

"He's not really built for [tackle]," Mudd said of the 6-3 1/2, 310-pound Watkins. "He doesn't have the arm length and stride length to reduce distance [on the outside]. He belongs inside. I'd trust putting the ball in his hands and hiking it to No. 7 [Michael Vick] if he had to do that."

How has Watkins managed to come so far in so little time? Well, Mudd thinks his hockey background helped.

"Hockey is very challenging, in a physical way," Mudd said. "I think there's some parallels between the two sports. Hockey isn't an individual sport. You look at the way they have to play off one another and play together and things like that. That's [just like] offensive-line play.

"He's very strong, has good leverage. He can bend himself and get underneath people. He stays underneath people. He gets that. There's some carryover again there with hockey. If you're going to check a guy, you'd better get underneath him or you're going to get knocked on your [butt]. So leverage and footwork and balance are all keys. He's really adapted well to that."

Mudd thinks Watkins' age and maturity level give him a definite advantage over younger rookies as far as being able to deal with the ups and downs of playing in the NFL.

"Young players have down periods," he said. "Not every guy comes in and lights it up and stays lighting it up. They might have a great rookie year and then kind of have a down period. Then they go through what I call the valley of darkness. You get in that place where you start doubting yourself. You've got to crawl out of that. That happens a lot to young players.

"I'm not saying he won't have that. But the chances of him having those kinds of experiences is probably less because of his age and because of his life experiences. He's going to take this very serious. But I don't think he's going to take it so seriously that he lets it bog him down."

Mudd has watched every one of the Eagles' offensive snaps from last season. He has watched the good plays and the bad plays, including all 49 of the sacks they gave up. He strongly believes that they will be much better this season.

"This helps a lot," he said of Watkins. "With this addition, I really like it. I like where we can be this year. I think we can put together a real solid performing group. They're smart. They've got plenty of experience.

"This piece [Watkins] is really critical in a couple of ways. It gives us some versatility. Plus, I don't think the people on each side of him are going to have to prop him up and tell him what to do.

"When I was with the Colts, guys like [Jeff] Saturday and [Ryan] Lilja, they liked people who could help them. They don't like people they have to spend an inordinate amount of time either propping up because he doesn't know who to [block], or how to do it, or he's scared. You're not going to have to do that with this guy."

Send email to pdomo@aol.com.

For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.

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