COLLEGE PARK — Earlier this week, Maryland graduate linebacker Tre Watson met up with some of his former Illinois teammates in cyberspace, hoping to get the best of them.
“Yesterday I was playing Xbox with Del’Shawn Phillips and Reggie Corbin,” Watson said this week. “I was definitely not going to let those relationships fracture because I left.”
Watson will leave those "NBA2K” battles behind him Saturday — along with the three seasons he spent playing for the Fighting Illini — when he and the Terps face Illinois at Maryland Stadium in the first-ever meeting between the schools.
For Watson, it’s a chance to show his former teammates, and Illinois coach Lovie Smith, how well he has made the transition from being a solid player at Illinois to a potential All-Big Ten selection at Maryland.
Watson leads the Big Ten in tackles (75), tackles per game (10.7) and is tied with teammate Darnell Savage Jr. for the league lead in interceptions (4). Watson and Savage are also tied for second in the nation in interceptions. Watson also has three tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
Brought in to fill the cleats of Jermaine Carter Jr., who led the Terps in tackles each of the past three seasons before being drafted in April, Watson has benefited from a system that gives him more freedom to make plays.
“The defense we play, I certainly feel has helped me a lot,” Watson said. “It’s part of the reason I came here. It’s a system I felt I would be extremely comfortable in and it would utilize my best skill sets, which to this point it has. The system has definitely allowed me to flourish.”
Asked if this week’s game feels any different than the first seven he has played for Maryland (4-3, 2-2 BIg Ten), Watson said, “I haven’t needed to do anything extra I haven’t stressed over anything. I understand who I’m playing. I know these players at a different level than I would know anyone else. I know the staff as well. To me, it’s no different than any other game.”
For his part, Smith said it’s similar to what he often faced as head coach of the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“In the NFL, it happened quite a bit,” Smith said on this week’s Big Ten coaches’ teleconference. “Tre Watson is a graduate of the University of Illinois. I’m sure it’s a special game for him.
“To know as many players as he does on our team, I’m sure it’s a little added incentive to play your best ball. When you’re a player like Tre Watson, that’s what you try to do each week.”
Smith said what Watson has done as a Terp hasn’t surprised him.
“Tre’s a good football player having an outstanding year,” Smith said. “We had Tre early in his career and he improved every year he was here. We see the final product of your last year playing college football. Tre Watson is a smart player, knows football, good hands. You see what he’s been able to do in pass coverage.”
While Watson’s ability as more than just a high-volume tackler has surprised some who watched him play for the Fighting Illini the past three seasons, his father, Tim, is not among them.
Tim, who played safety in the NFL for five years after starring at Howard, said Watson — the oldest of five children — has done that since his years playing youth football.
“To be quick frank with you, Tre has been doing what he’s doing right now since he started playing football,” Tim said. “He was a terror in high school. He was a terror at Illinois.”
Watson had a solid career at Illinois that was barely noticed for one obvious reason — the teams he played for were mostly terrible, going a cumulative 10-26, including 4-22 in the Big Ten.
Asked about his decision to come to Maryland after a 42-13 win over Minnesota on Sept. 22 — when he had the first pick-six of his career — Watson was succinct.
“I came here wanting to help a football team win games and to a place that I haven’t been in a really long time,” said Watson, who hasn’t been on a bowl contender since his freshman year at Illinois.
Despite barely playing the first three games as a sophomore, Watson finished just five tackles behind team leader Hardy Nickerson and tied for the lead among Big Ten players with 93 tackles made in league play.
After his production tailed off last season, largely because he missed three games after arthroscopic knee surgery, Watson was one of 16 scholarship players to transfer. At first, Watson had no idea where he would land.
“Seeing who was going to stick their hand in the pot and say, ‘We want you to come, and come make a difference,’ ” Watson said in the spring of his decision-making process. “This just happened to be the perfect place for me to do that.”
Starting with his performance against then-No. 23 Texas in the season opener, when his interception helped the Terps protect their slim lead for a 34-29 win at FedEx Field, Watson has developed into Maryland’s most consistent defender and one of its leaders.
“I love him,” senior running back Ty Johnson said. “You’ve seen him play — he flies around the ball, he gets the defense right. … He’s a high-energy guy who plays great at all times.”
Johnson said he knew during spring practice that Watson would have no problems replacing Carter, now in his rookie season with the Carolina Panthers.
“When we went against the linebackers, I knew he was going to be a great player,” Johnson said. “There was one day when I gave him a little pop and we went again. … He hit me so hard, I was like, ‘All right. You’re the real deal, man.’ ”
Johnson said the hit was hard enough to knock out one of his teeth, which is a bit ironic since the 6-foot-2, 236-pound Watson hopes to fulfill a childhood dream of someday becoming a dentist.
“He’s said he's going to be an orthodontist since he was 8 years old,” his father said.
There’s some irony in that, too.
“I’m the only person in my family out of my brothers and sisters, also my dad had them when I was pretty young — I was the only one that didn’t need braces,” Watson said. “It kind of stuck with me early on.”
That’s also part of the package. Ever since he was a child, Watson has achieved as much if not more off the field than he has on it. He came to Maryland with a 3.65 GPA and could be in line to become an academic All-American this year, something his father accomplished while at Howard.
Along with getting nearly straight As at Illinois and being named Academic All-Big Ten each of his three seasons, he also pledged and joined a fraternity during his sophomore year.
“I tell people every day, ‘If you want do something, you’re going to make time and you’re going to find a way to do it.’ I knew about the fraternity my entire life … and I wanted to make it a part of my own life,” he said.
With the way he has played this season, Watson might have to put his plans to become a dentist on hold for a while.
He was on the radar of several teams while at Illinois, but Watson’s profile has grown based on the number of NFL scouts who are checking in with Tim and attending practices at Maryland.
“This year is actually a stock-rising year,” his father said. The scouts “are coming more in droves now.”
A former NFL scout called Tim after finding out who his son was.
“The guy said, ‘Dude, he is a beast,’ ” Tim said. “He said Tre is one of the most physical linebackers in college football.”
Asked if he thinks his play has raised his profile with NFL scouts, Watson said, “I hope it would. I feel like I’ve been playing at a high level this year. I hope that translates to NFL teams being interested because that’s something I feel I could do at this level as well as the next.”
Though Watson and Smith downplay their reunion at Maryland Stadium, Tim said, “There’ll be a little more juice behind this one. Most definitely.”