Details make the difference for Gophers' assistant coach
MINNEAPOLIS — You can use a tape measure to find the tallest receivers, a stopwatch to determine the fastest runners, and a short-answer exam to figure out who's memorized the playbook. You can do all of that, and you'll locate the most perfect wide receivers possible.
But Steve Watson doesn't want any paper all-stars.
"I had a scout tell me one year that Anquan Boldin can't run. Bad 40 time. He's only a 4.7 (seconds)," the Gophers' new receivers coach said of the Baltimore Ravens receiver. "Eight Pro Bowls later ..."
Yeah, Watson needs to be convinced by what you accomplish on the football field, where height is useful and speed a help — but football ability means a whole lot more.
"To me, there's football speed, and there's track speed, how you run the 40(-yard dash)," Watson said. "And neither one of them mean anything."
Give Watson a wideout who will fight for every reception as if it's his last meal, who will muster every ounce of strength to turn a 6-yard gain into 7.
"When the ball is in the air, only one thing matters," Watson said. "Are you someone who can make plays?"
Someone like — well, Steve Watson.
"I wish he had some eligibility left," Gophers coach Tim Brewster joked about the former Broncos Pro Bowl receiver, who caught 353 passes, 36 of them for touchdowns, in a nine-year career in Denver. "He was a very good player, a tough-minded guy. I had great appreciation for how he played the game. Our young receivers benefit from the experience of a guy who's been there."
So they say. Watson joined Brewster's staff in the spring after eight seasons in various assistant coaching roles for the Broncos, charged with turning a bunch of athletes with little group identity into a Big Ten-caliber offensive weapon. Watson was Denver's receivers coach from 2003 to '06, associate head coach in 2007 and '08 but left the Broncos after the 2008 season when Mike Shanahan departed as head coach.
He's doing it the same way he succeeded in the NFL — by paying attention to every little thing that goes into making plays. He might come across as a bit of a scold, fixating on the details, except that his players say they see results in his approach.
"He doesn't let anything go. If you have a 15-yard route, and you go 14½ yards, he's going to pull you aside and make you get 15," Gophers junior Troy Stoudermire said.
Similarly, Da'Jon McKnight has learned to be more patient getting off the line of scrimmage, not rushing so much that his technique gets sloppy. That's an improvement that McKnight said has changed his game.
Watson has three children between the ages of 20 and 23, so he understands how to communicate with his players.
"That's how I treat the receivers, like they're my kids. That's the kind of relationship we have; it's just like talking to them," the 53-year-old coach said. "These are young kids, and young kids grow. We'll see how they grow into their armor."
He's encouraged by what he's seen so far. His eight receivers are all in good shape already, Watson said, and beginning to display their talent. Stoudermire "is a good football player who has a chance to be a great football player," Watson said. And McKnight, the other projected starter?
"He's got great ability but just a limited amount of football under his belt," Watson said. "He's learning so fast, and he's so talented, the sky is really the limit for him."
The players admit they're a bit in awe of being coached by an NFL veteran, someone who had three 1,000-yard seasons and played in two Super Bowls. Not to mention his other notable traits.
"He showed us some film of his NFL days," Stoudermire said. "He never had gloves on, even in bad weather, and he caught every ball."
"A great receiver," McKnight chimed in. Wait, Watson's NFL career ended three years before McKnight was born — how does he know how good Watson was?
"I played with him on Madden," the junior said of the video-game version of his coach. "He's kind of slow, but he caught everything."