Monday September 23, 2013Senior Defensive Back Jaylen Watkins: The Watkins Way
By Lisa Gallo, UF Communications
Jaylen Watkins was born to be an athlete.
One of his older cousins played collegiate football for Michigan State. Another cousin of his, Tommy Watkins, played Major League Baseball for the Minnesota Twins, batting .357 in his rookie season. His brother, Sammy, is an All-American junior wide receiver for Clemson University.
So, for Jaylen, a senior cornerback for the Gators, being an athlete is natural — it’s in his blood.
“It was just what my family did,” he said.
Surprisingly, the Watkins brothers have never played for the same team — not even in Pop Warner football.
“He played for my rival,” Watkins said of Sammy. “I would play quarterback and he would play quarterback for a different team. On defense, I would play safety and he would play safety for another team. Yes, [it was competitive], but I remember a few times, I would tackle him he would just say, “good job, bro.’”
Since the youth football days with his brother, Watkins has proven himself to be an elite athlete. He ran track for Cape Coral High School, advancing to the 4A Championships in the 4x100 relay. A dual threat on the football field, Watkins was the starting quarterback and also played defensive back for the Cape Coral Seahawks.
As a high school senior, Watkins totaled more than 2,500 total yards on offense, playing both quarterback and wide receiver. He was named the Florida Athletic Coaches Association District 16 Player of the Year in 2009, catching the eyes of many prestigious Division I football programs, including Alabama, Duke, Florida State, Miami, Tennessee, Wake Forest, and of course, the University of Florida.
The Florida coaching staff recruited him as a defensive star. As the standout offensive player in high school, Watkins said that the transition to playing defense full time was easy.
“I had an offensive coordinator in high school that was great,” he acknowledged. “He taught me concepts as a quarterback, so that when I got to Florida, it was an easy transition. As far as learning about defense, I had a better learning edge than most people. Most offenses in high school didn’t run the type of system that we ran, so I was a little more advanced than most.”
Watkins finished his high school degree early to enroll at Florida in the spring of 2010. Unfortunately, he had to have a fasciotomy surgery on his left thigh, almost immediately, causing him to miss the Orange and Blue Debut Spring Game.
Come the fall of 2010, Watkins was healthy — just in time to run onto the field of The Swamp and make his collegiate debut in the Gators’ season opener against Miami University.
As a true freshman, Watkins saw action in all but three games for the Gators, recording his first career tackle in UF’s 38-14 win over USF. During his sophomore campaign, he played in all 13 games, starting eight contests and finishing the season with 34 tackles and five pass breakups. He had a career-high six tackles in his first career start, a 48-10 road win at Kentucky.
Last year, Watkins appeared in all 13 games, starting 11, and racked up 39 tackles, eight pass breakups and a season-high three interceptions. He was honored with the College Football Performance Award for a defensive back in Week 4 after notching his first interception and returning it for a touchdown in the Gators’ 38-0 shutout of Kentucky. Watkins’ 2012 performance significantly contributed to Florida finishing No. 2 in the nation in pass efficiency, No. 5 in both total and scoring defense and leading the SEC in interceptions with 20.
Coming into his final season, Florida had created an identity of becoming known for its stellar defense, and Watkins is certainly a valuable part of that. In this year’s season opener, he had four total tackles against Toledo, including a tackle for loss.
“Jaylen Watkins may not be the most notable name in the Gator secondary, but he may very well be the most valuable,” said Bob Redman of FightinGators.com, just prior to the start of this season.
Watkins’ contributions on the field are certainly apparent; but although he may be one of the more reserved players on the Florida football team, his impressions off of the field have certainly not gone unnoticed.
He said that he has developed strong relationships with the Florida coaching staff, and described himself as a “go-to” guy for his teammates.
“I’m not a very vocal person, but I am someone that people can talk to,” he said. “I’ve been through everything — injuries, surgeries, not playing — I’ve had times where I wasn’t playing well — so, every time a teammate comes to me, I don’t necessarily have the answer, but I do have advice to give. I’ve been through those things and I’m here to help.”
Watkins takes pride in being a Gator, and says that he cherishes every moment he’s had at Florida. What he’s learned through the game of football and through simply being a part of The Gator Nation will guide him through his future.
“I’ve learned how to overcome almost any adversity. I’ve had my injuries and coaching changes — three defensive back coaches since I’ve been here — so, a lot of times I have had to adjust. It was rough,” he admitted. “I’ve learned that I have to live my life and play the hand that I’ve been dealt with and make the best of it.”
Following graduation with a bachelor’s degree in Family, Youth and Community Sciences in the spring, Watkins hopes to play football professionally. But, one thing is certain: no matter what the future holds, he will never leave The Gator Nation — his coaches, his teammates and the fans — behind.
“I just love The Gator Nation. I’m not one of the few that left, and I enjoy every moment here. I enjoy the fans so much,” Watkins said. “I’ve never seen anything like The Gator Nation.”