Watson dazzles in Western debut

Aaron Viner Courier Staff

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While Saturday’s result against Youngstown State left little for Leatherneck football fans to be cheerful about, the future is bright for the Western Illinois backfield.

The Leathernecks left Youngstown with a 56-14 loss and a 2-6 overall record, but true freshman running back Nikko Watson came away with a stunning debut.

“Nikko is amazing to watch,” Leathernecks receiver Terriun Crump said after the game. “He’s very good, and I think he’s going to be a great back in the future. I think we got another Herb Donaldson, or Dre Gibbs. He’s learning and he’s a great key to our offense.”

Donaldson, a 2008 Western graduate, led the Missouri Valley Football Conference in his final season in average rushing yards per game and average points scored per game. He is currently a member of the Tennessee Titans’ practice squad. Gibbs was a second-team all-conference pick in his senior season in 2009, and ranked 10th in the nation in average rushing yards per game.

Watson finished Saturday’s game with 149 yards rushing on 30 attempts, averaging just under 5 yards per carry. His first career touchdown, a plunge from 5 yards out, came in the third quarter.

The Rock Island, Ill. native credits the big guys up front for his success on Saturday.

“It was the (offensive) line,” Watson said, “running low, showing the numbers, and doing what coach taught me how to do.”

Senior linebacker Kevin Palermo knows what it is like to go up against Watson in practice and said he appreciates the impact he can have on a game. “He’s been our scout team guy,” Palermo said. “He runs the ball downhill and hard every time and it reflected today.

“Not a lot of freshmen come out and run the ball like that, especially against a good defensive team like Youngstown State, so I really give him props, it was huge. It really carried our offense at some points, and just kept running hard, which we needed from him.”

Larry Patterson was Watson’s counterpart in the Western backfield, but only picked up 14 yards on 8 carries.

Patterson, a redshirt freshman, said he was impressed by Watson’s performance. “Nikko was definitely a force on the field today,” Patterson said. “He ran hard when he got the call, and even made plays out of the plays that looked like they wouldn’t get anything.

“I’m really proud of him as a (true) freshman coming in, getting the call, stepping up and getting an opportunity.”

Being at the top of the stats list is nothing new to Watson, who amassed 1,800 rushing yards and scored 24 touchdowns in his senior year at Rock Island High School, and was named to the all-state first team.

According to Leathernecks head coach Mark Hendrickson, however, Watson wasn’t supposed to be playing at all this year.

“We were planning to redshirt him this year,” Hendrickson said, “but that’s how it goes, especially in Division I football. Our No. 4 running back, Trenton Herb, has been injured for a while and may not be able to come back this year. With (No. 1 and No. 2 running backs) Caulton Ray and Bryce Flowers out, that got us down to Larry Patterson and Nikko today.”

While Watson has spent most of his time on the practice squad, Hendrickson said he was not surprised by the freshman’s success.

“He’s been with the scout team this year,” Hendrickson said. “He’s worked out with the (first string) offense very little, and he runs the ball against our (starting) defense, which he does very well. It wasn’t a surprise because he practices with everything he’s got, in every practice.”

Hendrickson also went on to say that fans should expect to see more of Watson the rest of the way.

“We are going to see how (Bryce) Flowers and (Caulton) Ray are with their health,” the Leathernecks coach said, “but now that (Watson) has played, we’ll continue to see him get reps with the varsity during the week, and plan on getting him some more game time.”

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