By: Eric Myers
After Minnesota quarterback Zack Annexstad faked a handoff, he threw a quick pass to his tight end over the middle. It was a look that Tre Watson had seen before, so he undercut the route, intercepted the pass and returned it for a touchdown.
“They had been running that zone pop play on us a few times. They hit it on us on the boundary earlier in the game,” Watson said. “But it was something we weren’t going to let happen again.”
The graduate transfers ability to make in-game adjustments and certitude to take a successful play for the opposition are welcome additions for a Maryland linebacker corps that lost their leading tackler Jermaine Carter Jr. to graduation.
Watson leads the team in tackles with 39 and has recorded two interceptions and a sack after his first four games in a Maryland Terrapin uniform.
When the Illinois transfer notched his second interception of the season– the other coming in the fourth quarter of a close game against Texas in the season opener– Watson gave the Terrapins a 28-10 lead against Minnesota and helped his team maintain its momentum just 45 seconds into the second half.
“It was huge. I thought our guys came out [of halftime] excited to go play,” interim head coach Matt Canada said. “Anytime you can score on defense it puts you in a great position.”
The interception returned for a touchdown was the defensive highlight for Watson in a game where he also totaled 11 tackles and recorded a sack. This impressive performance against Minnesota, which came on the heels of a 15-tackle showing against Temple, earned Watson the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for the second time in his career.
The Tampa, Florida, native’s first Defensive Player of the Week accolade came after posting 16 tackles, 1.5 for a loss, when Illinois defeated Michigan State in 2016. Watson was no stranger to putting up impressive statistics at Illinois, but sought out an opportunity to play for a team positioned for postseason play in his final year of eligibility.
Although Watson recorded 188 total tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, three forced fumbles and one interception in 33 games while at Illinois, the 6-foot-2 linebacker yearned for improvement in the most important stat: wins.
The Fighting Illini won just 10 games during Watson’s playing career and failed to record a conference win last season. Utilizing the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule that allows a player to transfer and play immediately as a graduate student, Watson saw the opportunity for team success at Maryland and took a recruiting visit to College Park.
After meeting with linebackers coach Matt Barnes, Watson felt his skill set would work well with the defensive scheme. Since then, Watson has become a standout contributor for the defensive unit and a player who’s had a knack for coming away with key turnovers.
“I certainly came in expecting to make an impact,” Watson said. “I didn’t come here to sit on the sideline or be a rotational guy, that’s just not my mentality.”
With Watson’s contributions, Maryland’s much-maligned defensive unit from a season ago has become a reliable group who’s capable of shutting opponents down in the run game, getting pressure on the quarterback, stopping opponents on third downs and, most importantly to Watson, winning.
With three wins on the season, the linebacker’s new team has already surpassed his former program’s win total from a year ago. The next goal for Watson and the Terrapins is to continue their winning ways in pursuit of a bowl game appearance in postseason play, something that Watson hasn’t experienced in college.
“Being able to contribute is great. I came here wanting to help a football team win games and get to a place that I haven’t been in a really long time,” Watson said.