Desmond Watson: More than just a big body

Dan Mullen signed a five-star cornerback, a pair of top-100 defensive linemen and two quarterbacks in his 2021 class. But none of the 22 signees are bigger than defensive tackle Desmond Watson.

Literally.

“I am going to tell you what, I don’t want to get big Des upset, but if you had to pick, you put that 400 [pounds] in the over/under, I know which one I’m taking in the over/under when he shows up here,” Mullen said on signing day in December.

It turned out that Mullen set the over/under too low. Watson was listed on the roster at 432 pounds this spring. For comparison, 49 players weigh less than half of that.

Watson enrolled early to get into the Gators’ strength and conditioning and nutrition programs and get a jump start on learning defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s scheme.

While his mindboggling size draws attention, that’s far from the only thing Watson brings to the table.

First, he’s about as well-chiseled as you can possibly be at that weight. He’s not just dripping in fat. He’s extremely strong, as he can squat lift more than 400 pounds and bench close to 300 pounds, according to Evan Davis, his head coach at Armwood High School in Seffner, Florida. He’s in great physical condition.

“He never missed a sprint,” Davis said. “He never missed a workout. He’s just a large human being. He’s not scared to get out there and run. He gives everything he has, and, like I said, I think the University of Florida’s nutrition and wellness program will help him become extremely successful.”

He’s also much more athletic and flexible than you might expect for someone who weighs more than Shaquille O’Neal did as an NBA player. He had perhaps the most violent hands of any defensive lineman on campus this spring, and his feet didn’t appear any slower than those of players 100 pounds or more lighter. He isn’t so large that it limits his athleticism much.

“When he squats, he can squat and go all the way and take his butt and touch the ground with it and come back up, all the way into like a catcher’s position in baseball, that deep of a squat and all the way back up,” Davis said.

“He’s extremely athletic, and I think you can see that just from the early drills and everything going on right now at the University of Florida. He’s not out of place. Yeah, he’s still got to shape his body up some, but he is in the right place physically, quickness. He’s not out of place. It’s not like he’s going to be swimming in terms of talent compared to what he is.”

However, it’s his high football IQ that could give him the most upside. Davis said that Watson understood not just what his role was on a specific play but the responsibilities of all 10 guys around him as well. He understands the game and studies it like a middle linebacker or a quarterback.

Davis immediately recognized that Watson had the physical skills to be a special talent from the moment he first met him as a freshman. He was bigger than everybody else already. However, it was during a playoff game in his freshman year that Davis realized that he also has what it takes between the ears.

“He jumps offside, and our Mike linebacker who starts up at Indiana jumps his ass,” he said. “Our defensive coordinator tells him, ‘Hey, man, you’ve got to make up for it.’ And he goes out the next drive, and I think he had two tackles-for-loss and a sack. You just understood, like, ‘Holy crap, he’s got it.’ He just has to know that switch and flip it.”

His size, athleticism, intelligence, work ethic and room for growth made him the complete package in the eyes of UF’s coaches. If he moves this well right now at 432 pounds, how quick is he going to be in a year or two after he sheds 50-60 pounds? The Gators are excited about what his future might hold.

“He’s really got quick feet,” Grantham said. “He’s got ability to change direction. He’s obviously going to be a guy that can hold the point, do those things. But I think if he works to get in the kind of shape he wants to be – that we want him to be – you’re going to see a guy that will be able to make some range plays and maybe get from point A to point B a little bit better than you may anticipate right now.”

Florida wasn’t the only program that saw that potential in him. Watson also received offers from the likes of Texas A&M, LSU, Alabama and Georgia.

While the pandemic has made recruiting more challenging for the most part, it actually helped the Gators land Watson. He wanted to visit Texas A&M and LSU, UF’s top competitors for his services, and learn more about the schools, the coaches, the facilities and his chances of making the NFL from there. Due to the NCAA-mandated dead period that is still ongoing, he was unable to visit either of those schools.

Watson wanted to get his commitment out of the way early and be done with recruiting, and he visited UF for a couple of junior day events prior to the pandemic.

Mullen also made it abundantly clear that even though Watson was only rated as a three-star prospect that he was near the top of their board, if not at the very top.

“Dan Mullen let him know from the very beginning that he might not be the highest-rated recruit, but he might’ve been the highest-priority recruit in this whole class just because Florida’s had a really good D-Line, but they lacked size the last couple years, and Des immediately brought the size to the table and that if he could continue to do the right things that he would be put in the right spot and be able to excel,” Davis said.

All of those factors led to Watson committing to the Gators in late July. He never wavered and signed with the program in December without any drama.

Davis disagrees with where the recruiting services had Watson ranked, though he doesn’t put much stock into them. He doesn’t understand why the opinions of recruiting analysts should hold more weight than those of the people who coached him and the college coaches who recruited him.

“Because he doesn’t go to their camps and love on them, and he doesn’t go out there and do one-on-one pass-pro really well in just shorts and T-shirts,” he said of why Watson was ranked as low as he was. “And when he’s just wearing shorts and T-shirts, he might not be the best-looking body out there because he’s a big kid.”

That may be true, but Mullen saw right through that. Watson was perhaps the crown jewel of the class in his mind.

Watson still has some work to do to get his body right, but he could find himself as a member of the rotation on early downs in the fall. His teammates liked what they saw from him this spring.

“Desmond is impressive, man,” defensive end Zachary Carter said. “He’s pretty impressive for his size, and I know he’ll continue to trim up and stuff, but he has a lot of potential. He’s going to look like a monster. Man, I’m telling you, once you get a little [Nick] Savage, it’ll be a little different.”

From being an overweight, athletic marvel to an underrated recruit to a Florida Gator, Watson’s had an incredible story to this point. Davis believes his story has another chapter to it.

“This is everything he’s always wanted,” Davis said. “It’s right here in front of him. He is living the dream. I tell him all the time that what he does for the next six years of his life will dictate what he does for the next 60 years of his life in terms of getting an education, getting physically where he’s supposed to.

“With his size and athletic ability, if he does what he’s supposed to, and he is extremely, extremely intelligent, I don’t see why he’s not playing in the NFL in three years.”

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.