A Penn football all-American? Justin Watson fits the bill

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Justin Watson could be a star on the FBS level, but he’s never wavered on his choice to attend Penn. Photo courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Athletics

So when was the last time Penn’s football team had a preseason first-team all-American?

Yep, it’s been a while.

Well, now there’s Justin Watson, who has already been a two-time postseason FCS all-American. OK, on the third and then second teams. The senior wide receiver from Western Pennsylvania, who was a finalist last season for the Walter Payton Award as the top offensive player at his level, might even find a way to win the Ivy League’s Offensive Player of the Year honors in his last chance. Especially since he’s on NFL watch lists everywhere.

What more do you need to compute? And still …

“The best part about him is he takes it in stride,” said Quakers coach Ray Priore, whose team has been picked to finish third in the preseason poll, behind Princeton and Harvard, after getting a share of the title in each of his first two seasons. “He realizes that in the big picture he’s just a piece of the puzzle.

“The burden of being the man, and stepping to the plate, we know he’s done it before. Oh my God, yeah. He’s got a knack for that. He’s got the skills. But he also has the heart and grit, and the football IQ. It was easy to see early on that he was going to be different. And he would have risen, wherever he would have gone.”

But he didn’t go anywhere. He came to West Philly from South Fayette High in suburban Pittsburgh, where his team went 16-0 in 2013 and won the first state title in program history by beating Imhotep Charter in the Class AA final, 41-0. He had 1,568 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns that season. But his first two years, he played with wideout Zach Challingsworth, who ended up at Pitt. Watson got some Mid-American Conference offers, but he committed to Penn before his senior season. When interest started coming in from Big Ten and ACC schools later on, he didn’t waver.

“As soon as I stepped on campus, it had the right feel to it,” recalled Watson, who has caught 205 passes for 2,694 yards and 19 touchdowns, and last season set Quakers records with 89 receptions for 1,115 yards. “It was a pretty easy decision. It was one of those moments.

“I kind of flew under the radar. As a senior, the bigger schools started coming at me. My coach [Jay Domengeaux] would tell me, ‘Hey, I got a bunch of mail today.’ But I was all in with Penn. I really was. The last two years have been great. I’ve worked two phenomenal summer internships [as a finance major], so I don’t know exactly what it is but I couldn’t be happier. My best friends in the world are here. A lot of things wouldn’t be the same. For me, the grass definitely isn’t greener on the other side. This is everything I could ask for.

“People looking in from the outside ask me about that all the time. But the reality is, you never know. Everything else isn’t a constant. When I watch the big-time schools play, it’s almost like I’m breaking down film. I think I’d start on any FBS team in the country. There’s no doubt in my mind it would be cool to use that as a measuring stick. But I’m sure that after the season I’ll have that opportunity, whether it’s at the Senior Bowl or an NFL camp. But first I have 10 more games to play. Right now, all I’m thinking about is [the Sept. 16 opener, at home against Ohio Dominican]. Why stress yourself out over things that you can’t control yet?”

Last year, the Quakers finished first with Princeton. In 2015, they tied with Dartmouth and Harvard. They do have to replace three-year starting quarterback Alek Torgersen, but there are four promising albeit unproven young talents vying to be the next guy. They also have eight returning starters on defense and 14 overall, not counting the kicking game. Princeton received six first-place votes to finish tied with Harvard, while the Quakers accumulated 10 fewer points but like Harvard also got five first-place nods. So …

“The motivation is going to come internally,” emphasized Watson, who has added 10 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame and now weighs 220. “After two straight championships, we’re still third. That puts a chip on your shoulder. But that fits into my personality. Before it was, ‘OK, the bigger schools didn’t want you.’ One thing our offensive coordinator John Reagan tells us is you always have to reach a little bit further than you possibly could. Because if you don’t you’ll never know how high your ceiling is.

“No matter how many accolades I get, it’s where’s the next one at. What did I not do? It’s never saying I’m done. You have to crave competition. I know there’s a target on my back. That means I have to bust my butt every week to make sure I raise my game. It’s not going to be any easier. …

“We have one saying around this team: ‘Be where your feet are at.’ That’s where you’re standing. If I’m in class I’m not thinking about football. When I get on the field it’s all about football. You can’t get to point B without getting to point A first. I want these 10 games to be the best of my career.”

After that, whatever happens happens. He has a future. If not in the pros then certainly in the business world. He will be successful at something. And he might have been even if he had ended up at another place. But somehow you get the feeling this was meant to be.

And every story needs a closing chapter.

“His family understood the long-term effect of an Ivy League degree,” Priore noted. “The other parts are just icing on the cake. Scholarships are great. His parents sacrificed. He’s matured and developed into a force to be reckoned with. And he’s a 3.4 [grade-point average] student. But he’s his biggest critic.

“Because he’s from Penn, he’s always going to be an underdog. But sometimes, it’s just about getting into the right situation.”

First, there’s a three-peat to pursue. And all the stuff that goes with it.

“It’s a different feel, for sure,” Watson said. “We’re used to seeing Alec in the huddle. You take some things for granted. Little things. If I didn’t get quite as open on a play, he’d throw me open. But over the years I’ve seen just about everything that can be thrown at our offense. I told all four [of the QB candidates] that I’m 100 percent in your corner. My first game, my head was spinning. Guys whose job I was fighting for took me as their own. It feels good to finally be an elder statesman, get my turn to play it forward.”

He has taken handoffs in the backfield, lined up at every wideout spot, and could return punts if needed. About the only thing he hasn’t done is throw a pass. Any chance?

“I keep making the case for it,” Watson said with a smile. “I don’t see it happening. I think it would be a spiral, but it probably wouldn’t go very far.”

Imagine that. A chink in his resumé, after all.