PULLMAN – Nakia Watson became an effective collegiate running back at Wisconsin. A few years later, he became the feature back at Washington State.
Watson will return to Madison, Wisconsin, and shoulder the bulk of WSU’s carries when the Cougars meet the 19th-ranked Badgers at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
The game marks the third start of Watson’s college career.
“It means a lot to me,” he said Tuesday of playing his former team and making one last appearance at historic Camp Randall Stadium. “It’s the old stomping grounds. Don’t get me wrong, it’ll be nice to see my old coaches, my old teammates. I got probably eight to 10 boys still on the team that I talk to on a regular basis.
“I know them, so it’ll be fun to play against them. … There’s no need to be nervous.”
Watson emerged early in his career as a key reserve in Wisconsin’s backfield, showing flashes of his potential across two seasons before transferring to WSU.
He took a redshirt in 2018 after signing with Wisconsin as a four-star recruit out of Austin, Texas, then had a breakout season in 2019, earning a rotational role for the run-heavy Badgers. Watson played in 19 games with Wisconsin, totaling 522 yards and five touchdowns on 127 carries.
It appeared he might be in line to take over for Badgers great Jonathan Taylor and claim the starting RB position for a program known for producing elite tailbacks. But Watson opted for a change of scenery and transferred to WSU in spring 2021.
Watson had to wait for his opportunity at WSU. He didn’t see the field much last season behind the Cougars’ senior tandem of Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh.
“I did learn a lot from them,” Watson said. “When they left, I knew I had the potential to be that guy. I took on that role and here I am.”
Borghi opted out of the team’s season finale at the Sun Bowl and McIntosh was unavailable for the game, so WSU called on Watson to make his first start as a Cougar. He produced 62 yards on 17 carries in the loss to Central Michigan, then held down first-team responsibilities throughout spring and fall camps as WSU installed a new offense, a balanced version of the Air Raid that includes a steady use of the ground game. Coach Jake Dickert essentially confirmed in December that Watson would be the Cougars’ primary ball-carrier of the future.
“He’s had that mantle for us since I got here in January,” running backs coach Mark Atuaia said recently. “All good running back rooms have that ‘bell cow,’ and that’s who he is for us in every aspect.”
Billed as a “power back” during the first year of his WSU career, Watson trimmed weight this off-season in an effort to better fit the speedier style of Pac-12 play. He is listed at 223 pounds after playing closer to 230 last season.
“He’s in the right place physically,” Atuaia said.
“I definitely feel a lot faster now,” Watson said. “I was a little bit heavier back in bowl prep. … Now, I’m a bit lighter. I feel faster, I feel more elusive, I feel quicker.
“Big Ten, that comes with more power. Most things are in the box. As far as the Pac-12, speed kills out here.”
Watson had a career game Saturday in his second WSU start, rushing for 117 yards on 18 carries (6.5 yards per attempt) in the Cougars’ 24-17 win over Idaho. He fought through tackles and seemed to accelerate out of the backfield with quicker pace than he exhibited last season. Yet he did commit a costly error, losing a fumble early in the fourth quarter. Still, the ground game was a bright spot for WSU’s offense, which was otherwise uninspiring. Watson’s effort was consistent, as was the Cougars offensive line’s run-blocking success against the underdog Vandals.
“There were some lanes he had an opportunity to run through,” Dickert said. “For him to get some touches and prove himself, I think he’s got a high want-to. He came here with a purpose. He came into a difficult situation where he wasn’t going to be the guy and had to buy his turn. I think he’s improved. I think he will look at this game and find some ways where he can have a little bit better ball security.
“But the physicality he brings is something our offense needs. We need to take advantage of some light boxes, and I thought we did that on Saturday.”
This weekend, the Cougars will be up against a tremendous Wisconsin defensive front. Traditionally, the Badgers boast exceptional linebackers and D-linemen, and this season is no different
“I’ve been telling (my teammates), ‘Them boys are gonna come downhill,’ ” Watson said. “They are strong, they are fast and they are powerful. We’re going to have to bite down on our mouthpieces … and play fast, play physical. We’re gonna have to play to the echo of the whistle and steal some energy.”