Kern: Penn's Justin Watson a versatile threat

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Penn's Justin Watson (right), who led the Ivy League in three receiving categories last season, had eight receptions for 133 yards in the Quakers' opener last week. ( YONG KIM / Staff Photographer )

OK, SO is there anything that Justin Watson can't do on the offensive side of the ball, other than maybe line up at left guard?

Well, as a matter of fact, yes. Which, if you've watched everything he did for Penn with the ball in his hands last season, might be a little hard to believe.

"I was the quarterback until high school (South Fayette, in Bridgeville Pa.)," said the 6-5 junior wideout. "I went to a small school (before that), so they usually just stick the fastest kid at quarterback. As soon as I got there, I threw my first pass. They were like, 'No, that's not happening.' I had the speed and the height, so they moved me to wide receiver.

"Everything worked out. We wound up winning a state title (PIAA Class AA, by beating Imhotep, 41-0, in 2013). We had a different receiver who took all our backfield snaps and jet sweeps. Now that's me. It's pretty cool."

Maybe if you're the Quakers. And not so much if you're the guys trying to stop him.

Last season Watson led the Ivies in receptions (74), receiving yards (1,082) and receiving touchdowns (nine), finishing second in the voting for the league's offensive player of the year. In the last three games, which included a win at Harvard, he had 29 catches for 399 and three TDs. Against Harvard he also ran five times for 100 yards and a score. By that point he was lining up just about anywhere and doing whatever the Quakers needed. And why not?

"There's certainly a uniqueness about Justin," said second-year coach Ray Priore. "It's not only his skill level, but he has such a high football IQ. That allows us to use him in so many ways. He understands the whole package, not just the job for his position. That's a special characteristic. He can do things without even blinking an eye. He thinks the game better than just about anyone else around him. It really opens up the field for the rest of the guys."

Last week the Quakers opened with a 49-28 home loss to Lehigh. Watson had eight receptions for 133 yards and two TDs. Saturday they're at Fordham (1-1), which beat them here a year ago by three.

Over the summer, he and senior quarterback Alek Torgersen - who also ran for 86 yards and two scores against Lehigh - worked out a lot together after they finished their 9-to-5 internships at a downtown assets-management firm.

"It was crazy," Torgersen said. "We'd go to lunch, hang out, come back here at 5 o'clock and throw. We were kind of on the same page. That's always good to have.

"He's the hardest-working kid on the field, day in and day out. He comes in first to get treatment in the training room. He's the hardest worker in the weight room. He definitely brings a lot of intensity to practice. It helps out with the whole vibe, how things are going. When he's performing, the whole offense is performing. He's the key contributor, and everyone knows that. He's a natural leader.

"He surprised me at the beginning. Not anymore. Now it's just expected. He's supposed to make those one-handed grabs, catch every ball I throw to him. At this point I'm disappointed when he doesn't."

Even though that's his main asset, he can bring a whole bunch more to the equation. The versatility is what separates/elevates him.

"That's so much fun," smiled Watson, who carried twice for 15 yards last week. "When you're a kid in middle school, that's what you do. You're always moving around. And it's awesome that way. Anything you can do to help us win, I'll do it. I just don't think they'll let me throw, after seeing my arm. But anything else, I'm definitely ready. I don't want to step on anyone's toes. But I know the whole playbook, just in case. You never know what they might ask you to do.

"For me, it's more about the ring. If somebody wants to try and concentrate on stopping me, it's going to mean somebody else is open and can make a play. It's never just about one guy. If we play well as a team, everything will take care of itself. I'm not going to change. That's how I got to this point."

But surely he must have a favorite part of his vast repertoire?

"I think catching a deep post," Watson said. "You never know if you're going to get it, but that first moment when you see the ball in the air, that's such a cool feeling. Especially when you get to bring it down. Just awesome. And you hear everyone kind of holding their breath when it's in the air. Then the crowd erupts, and everyone else starts running downfield (to celebrate)."

Unless, of course, it's a road game.

"In that situation," he added, "it's great that they stay quiet the whole time."

Spoken like someone who's been there.


kernm@phillynews.com

@mikekerndn

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