Rams linebacker Josh Watson puts “fighter’s mentality” on display

Aug 26, 2017; Fort Collins, CO, USA; Colorado State Rams linebacker Tre Thomas (52) linebacker Josh Watson (55) blocks on Oregon State Beavers wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins (17) in the third quarter at Sonny Lubrick Field at Colorado State Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

In defense of Mike Bobo, his offensive background gave the Colorado State Rams’ offense a head start. But now in his third year as head coach, Bobo’s defense is leading the way, as the green and gold sit at 2-1 through three games of the 2017 season.

Bobo, a quarterback-turned-offensive coordinator at the University of Georgia, now relies on junior Josh Watson to be the ‘quarterback’ of Marty English’s defense with the Rams.

Watson wasn’t supposed to be the leader of the defense; the one checking to make sure his teammates are lined up correctly, the one ensuring that they’re giving their opponents the right look. It was supposed to be Deonte Clyburn, a redshirt senior who missed the 2016 season due to blood clots in his leg. Clyburn was medically cleared prior to the 2017 campaign; prepared and practiced with the team — then the blood clots returned.

Clyburn, the defense’s heart and soul –- and arguably their most athletically-gifted player -– was shut down just one week before Colorado State kicked off their season with incredibly high expectations.

Watson was the next man up. And through three games, he’s proved to be more than capable as a playmaker — and as a leader.

Last year, Watson found himself in a similar situation when he was thrown into the fire after Clyburn couldn’t play, leaving No. 55 to start 11 games and play in all 13 for Colorado State. He was incredibly productive, with 90 total tackles, trailing only Kevin Davis for second place on the team.

This season, Watson’s off to an even better start, leading the team in every game and sitting head and shoulders above the rest of his teammates with 25 total tackles already. He’s been playing like a man possessed, the face of a new-look defense for Colorado State.

“[Our] mentality [is] to get to the ball. Once we do, that’s our ball,” said Watson, after the Rams’ 38-10 win over Abilene Christian on Saturday. “It’s in the air, it’s our ball. We’ve got to go get it. Make a play off it. Guys know their responsibility, guys know where the help is, and they know their job… This defense has come a long ways.”

The stats bear that out. The Rams have given up only 18.0 points per game so far this season, nearly cutting that number in half compared to last year’s 35.3 per allowed. And while they didn’t win against Colorado, the defense shut CU out in the second half of that game, which was impressive, considering all the firepower the Buffs have on offense this year. Colorado State also shutout Abilene in the first half last week — or four straight quarters of scoreless football — and allowed only seven points to Oregon State in the second half of the Rams’ season-opening win.

Watson’s play has been the model of that “fighter’s mentality” which English has asked for; he’s forced a fumble and snared an interception, accounting for two of the nine forced turnovers the Rams already have this season. That’s a huge change for the defense in general, who made plenty of stops in 2016, but could only force 14 turnovers on the year.

“That’s what we preach and talk about every day. Making plays, getting the ball back to our offense,” said Watson.

“Plus-two on the takeaways,” Watson continued, explaining on the team’s goal in every game this year. “I think we might have fallen short on that [Saturday], but we were still able to get our two takeaways… the sky’s the limit on our defense.”

For many players, jumping into the role of middle linebacker would be a difficult task. Not just in terms of playing well, but in the heavy load that leadership brings as well. For Watson, that leadership comes naturally; passed down from one generation to another.

Watson’s father, Steven, used to take Josh from high school to high school, giving out free haircuts while also talking to the young men about how they can be responsible — not only in school, but in life in general. The Rams’ linebacker noted that his favorite hobby outside of football is still cutting his teammates’ hair — that is, when he’s not studying film, learning plays, going to class or practicing just west of the new, on-campus stadium.

This week presents a special test for the junior linebacker, with No. 1 Alabama set to host the Rams on Saturday.

So, how does Watson feel about playing ‘Bama, in their house, against a host of blue-chip play-makers?

“Great,” he said emphatically. “We haven’t given up a lot of points on defense this year. We’ve got to continue to not allow teams to get explosive plays… to get into position to score. If we do that, going into next week, there’s no telling what could happen.”

Could the Rams upset ‘Bama? Bobo said after beating Abilene Christian, his team is going to Alabama to win the ball game. It may be a long shot, but if Watson and the defense keep playing lights-out, we could have a low-scoring, defensive battle in Tuscaloosa this Saturday.

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