Linebacker Tre Watson built his college career during the three years he spent at Illinois as a high-volume tackler for consistently lousy teams.
In choosing a landing spot for his final season as a graduate transfer, Watson wanted to find a system where he could make game-changing plays — and win games.
Through the first four games of the 2018 season, Watson seems to be a perfect fit for Maryland’s defense, and the Terps appears to be satisfying Watson’s wishes.
“Coming in, obviously I got to talk to [linebackers] coach Matt Barnes and everyone and they laid out what was an opportunity to play a role that I felt I comfortable in,” Watson said after Maryland opened Big Ten play with a 42-13 home win over Minnesota on Saturday.
“It was similar to what I did in the past, similar to what I can see for myself that I can get out of my skillset. I certainly came in expecting to make an impact. I didn’t come in to sit on the sidelines or be a rotational guy. That’s just not my mentality.”
Still a prolific tackler who leads the Terps with 39, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Watson already has more interceptions (two) than he did in the 29 games he played with the Fighting Illini.
Watson got off to a bit of a slow start Saturday. After making just three tackles in the first half, Watson intercepted Minnesota quarterback Zack Annexstad’s first pass after halftime and returned it 36 yards for his first career touchdown.
He followed that up later in the third quarter with his first sack as a Terp, one of four Maryland had against the freshman walk-on. Watson finished the game with a team-high 11 tackles.
Watson, whose interception in the season-opening win over then-No. 23 Texas at FedEx Field was one of three straight turnovers to close game, said that he was waiting on Annexstad’s pass across the middle.
“They had been running that zone pop play on us a few times,” Watson recalled. “They hit it on us on the boundary earlier in the game, but it wasn’t something we were going to let happen again.”
Just as he was against the Longhorns, Watson was the beneficiary of the pressure applied by junior nickel back and safety Antoine Brooks Jr.
“I’m pretty sure that pick is all Antoine Brooks,” Watson said. “He’s been lighting up the quarterback all season, and I'm pretty sure he was to credit for my Texas interception as well.
“But he lit him [Annexstad] up and then the ball is in the air, it’s got be mine. After that point, it was basically a free line to the end zone. … There’s no better feeling than being in the end zone for the team.”
After cutting Maryland’s early 14-0 lead to 21-10 right before halftime, Minnesota never challenged again.
“It was huge,” Maryland interim coach and offensive coordinator Matt Canada said of Watson’s pick-six. “I thought our guys came out [after halftime] excited to go play. ...Anytime you score on defense, it puts you in a great position, right?”
Watson, who tied his career-high with 15 tackles in Maryland 35-14 loss to Temple in the home opener the previous week, credits the team’s pass rushers for making his job easier.
“You saw that up front with Jesse Aniebonam and Byron Cowart making some big sacks,” Watson said. “You saw that at the second level, Isaiah Davis making some big hits. I was fortunate to make a few myself.”
With Saturday’s victory in the Big Ten opener, Maryland (3-1) has won as many games as Illinois did when Watson was a sophomore and more than it did during his junior year.
“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 has never played in a bowl game in college. “I feel like so far, I’ve been able to help the team do that and that’s what matters at the end of the day.”
NOTE: Canada said after the game that junior running back Lorenzo Harrison III, who sat out the Temple game with an undisclosed injury, could have played against Minnesota, but the performances by senior Ty Johnson (123 yards on 11 carries, including a career-long 81-yard touchdown) and redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland (112 yards on six carries, including touchdown runs of 26 and 64 yards) allowed him to let Harrison to heal completely before Maryland’s next game Oct. 6 against Michigan.