No Ray or Flowers? No problem

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No Ray or Flowers? No problem

Aaron Viner courier staff

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Never fear, Nikko Watson’s here.  

When Western Illinois football announced running backs Caulton Ray and Bryce Flowers had been suspended indefinitely from the team for a violation of team rules on April 16, there were questions about how the backfield for the Leathernecks would shape up during their absence.  

Nikko Watson, who will be a true sophomore next fall, showed me on Saturday at the Bruce Craddock Memorial Spring Game that he is building off of his strong performance from last season. Last year, Watson appeared in the final four games of the season, rushing for 485 yards, scoring 3 touchdowns and averaging 121.2 yards per game.

 With Ray and Flowers out for the time being, Watson appears ready to be the No. 1 guy on the depth chart.  When talking to him after the scrimmage, he said he is ready to accept the responsibility for a bigger role next fall.

“Obviously things have changed in the past few weeks and my role has gotten a whole lot bigger,” Watson said. “That just means I have to step up a little bit more. I know they might look for me in clutch situations, and I have to step up.”

The 6-foot, 240-pound running back played well in the glorified practice that was the spring game.  During the 11-on-11 “thud drills” — which resembled two-hand touch football — he ran strong hitting holes, and found a lot of good running lanes. When the full contact drills started, I saw Watson prove why he’s going to be the go-to back.

Watson busted off runs of 5, 7, and an ankle-breaking 6 yards in his 5 carries on the first series.  He then came in for his second and final drive picking up 19 yards on 4 carries, to give him 37 yards on 9 carries for the day.  After practice, Watson seemed pretty happy with his first official spring game.

“It was good to see where we are,” Watson said. “It’s my first spring ball game and it is different, but it’s a lot of fun.”

The big question for me coming into the game wasn’t about Watson, though. With Ray and Flowers’ departure, the Leathernecks lack depth. Watson can’t carry the ball every running play, so who is going to be his backup?

The man getting those reps was redshirt freshman Jason Stigler.  

Stigler is 5-foot-7 and 180-pounds but makes up for his smaller stature with his shiftiness and quickness from the backfield.  He was able to haul in a few passes on screens, including on his second play in full contact, where he picked up 8-yards speeding past a few defenders.  

I wasn’t sure how he’d perform between the tackles with a smaller frame, but he quickly erased my doubts.  

His most impressive play was a hard-fought nine-yard run. There were two defenders on him shortly after crossing the line of scrimmage, but he powered through them for the final five yards of the run, showing off his willpower to not give up.  

His toughness wasn’t a surprise to head coach Mark Hendrickson.  

“We know he’s a tough young man because he did that all fall on the scout team. He’s the running back who took carries all fall against the varsity defense and got pounded day after day,” Hendrickson said. “He was named our scout team MVP last fall, and he hasn’t let up at all this spring, becoming more polished as a true running back.”

This is a role many people, including Stigler himself, did not expect him to be in so quickly, but with the team’s off–the-field issues, he has had to learn quickly.

“I didn’t see myself (in this situation) when I first got here because I’m a walk on,” Stigler said.  “I had to adjust to the new plays and all the football talk.  But after a while I got the concept and kept rolling after that.”

Watson and Stigler appear to be a solid one-two combo heading out of spring, and once the fall session begins, Jalen Duncan, who earned the Mr. Indiana award for running backs, will join the squad.

“Those two guys took the reps this past week, and they will have new backs joining them in the fall,” Hendrickson said.  “We just knew we had to get out of the spring with these two guys.  We are very pleased with their work ethic.  They both go 100 miles per hour every time they are in.”

Although the loss of Ray and Flowers shortens the depth of the backfield, I feel that with Watson leading the way, everything will be just fine.  

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