PULLMAN – Jaylen Watson arrived in Pullman hoping to be a trendsetter, so when a unique opportunity presented itself last fall, Washington State’s new junior college transfer cornerback couldn’t say no.
In 2020, after a recommendation from the NCAA Football Rules Committee, the sport’s governing body removed its figurative padlock on the number zero as a response to the growing popularity of single-digit jersey numbers in college football.
Nobody at WSU, or any other college football program in the country for that matter, had worn the No. 0. Watson, a lockdown corner who’s never been afraid to express himself, saw a chance to make history before taking his first snaps as a Pacific-12 Conference football player.
“Zero. First, I like the number. I wanted to be the first here to wear it,” Watson said.
There’s more to it, though.
When Watson looks down at his jersey number, or the “0” emblem hanging from a gold chain on his neck, it provides a subtle reminder of some not-so-subtle goals.
“That’s how many passes I want caught on me each game. Zero,” Watson said. “I don’t want to give up anything.”
Watson played in three of WSU’s four games last season, missing only one against USC, the program that signed him before he reopened his recruitment due to academics. In those three games, Watson allowed only one reception, on a skinny post against Oregon State. He broke up two passes, registered 13 tackles, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble, earning All-Pac-12 honorable mention from the conference’s coaches despite playing in fewer games than most of his peers.
His goals aren’t entirely unrealistic, but if Watson starts in 12 or 13 games, he’s bound to be thrown at a few dozen times given the West Coast’s shift to spread, pass-heavy offensive schemes like WSU’s run-and-shoot and USC’s Air Raid.
Still relatively unknown to the majority of Pac-12 offensive coordinators who didn’t have to plan for the Cougars in 2020, Watson’s reputation might grow quickly in the early stages of the season. By the time it ends, it’s possible quarterbacks who’ve seen the athletic 6-foot-3, 204-pound senior on film might be discouraged to throw his way.
“I set my standards pretty high, but when I’m in man coverage I try my best not to give up any passes,” Watson said. “So that’s the goal each game.”
Watson already made history by selecting No. 0 and he hopes to distinguish himself wearing the number this season.
If he does, there could be more history awaiting Watson next spring.
Only a few years removed from working at a Wendy’s in his hometown while he tried to improve his grades, the Georgia native could become the first WSU cornerback to be drafted in 17 years, since the Denver Broncos selected Karl Paymah in 2005.
“It’s a blessing. I’m just happy to be here,” Watson said. “As a kid, it’s just something I dreamed about and now it’s here.”
Literally and figuratively, Watson’s closer than ever to his goals. On Tuesday, a small group of NFL scouts watched him and his teammates go through drills during the fourth day of preseason camp.
Midway through practice, Watson was one of 10 players WSU coach Nick Rolovich pulled aside to meet with scouts from the Jacksonville Jaguars, Washington Football Team, Las Vegas Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals.
“That’s why I try to come out here every day with so much energy, because I remember when I didn’t have this opportunity and I just wished I could get to where I am now,” Watson said.
WSU’s receivers have learned to embrace their encounters with Watson on the practice field, even if most don’t go their way.
Few corners in the Pac-12 possess his physical skills, let alone the self-confidence and bold attitude that make Watson such a well-rounded athlete.
“He’s a great player. We compete every day,” sophomore receiver Donovan Ollie said. “I like going against him, he likes going against me. We like to compete, so it’s a challenge always going against a good corner, but it’s good to put some pressure on him as well.”
Asked if he thought Watson could complete a season without conceding a catch, Ollie responded, “Oh yeah, of course. I’ve got faith in my boy.”
This summer, analytics website Pro Football Focus ranked the Pac-12’s returning corners by coverage grade. Watson was at the top of the list with a grade of 85.7, followed by Arizona State’s Chase Lucas (84.8) and Colorado’s Mekhi Blackmon (79.3).
In the spring, WSU strength and conditioning coach Dwain Bradshaw labeled Watson as one of the team’s improved players in the weight room. That was before Watson posted a Twitter video of his personal-record 660-pound deadlift. In a recent video, Watson performs a 60-inch box jump with relative ease.
“From when he first got here in late July last year to now, even just how he’s moving, he’s a good-looking kid,” Bradshaw said in April.
Watson said he grew fatigued toward the end of games in 2020. In addition to improving his endurance, Watson added 5 pounds of muscle “to get more explosive, so I could get out of my breaks pretty quick.”
“I feel like last year I wasn’t in the best shape,” Watson said. “Once drives get long or once the third or fourth quarter hit, I start playing high because I started losing my legs, I started losing my technique. I’ve been working on that a lot this offseason.”
Proudly wearing the No. 0, Watson will have a chance to put it on display this fall and potentially make more history in the process.
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