Tre Watson sat to the left of interim head coach Matt Canada in the Gossett Football Team House following Maryland’s 42-13 win over Minnesota on Sept. 22.
Dressed in a Maryland Under Armour fleece and one line of eye black underneath only his left eye, Watson wasn’t even 30 minutes removed from the game and the type of performance Maryland coaches envisioned him having when he transferred to College Park.
Watson’s game-high 11 tackles, one sack and an interception return for a touchdown led the Terrapins’ defense and subsequently earned him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors.
“Coming in, I got to talk to [linebackers coach Matt Barnes] and everyone,” said Watson following the Minnesota game. “And they laid out what was an opportunity for me to play in a role that I felt like I was comfortable in. And it was similar to a lot of things I did in the past, similar to what I can see myself getting out of my skill set.”
Seven games into the season, Watson, a graduate transfer from Illinois, leads Maryland with 75 tackles, adding one sack and four interceptions as the team’s starting WILL linebacker. Watson was at Illinois for four years, registering 188 tackles, three forced fumbles and 2.5 sacks.
Saturday marks Maryland’s first game in program history against the Fighting Illini, and a reunion for Watson with his former teammates and coaches.
“I’m sure this is a special game for [Watson],” said Illinois head coach Lovie Smith, who coached Watson the past two seasons. “And when you know as many players as he knows on our team, I’m sure it’s a little bit of added incentive to play your best ball. But when you’re a player like Tre Watson, that’s what you try to do each week.
“Tre Watson [is] a smart player, he knows football. Good hands, you see what he’s been able to do in pass coverage … I see the normal progression that good football players make.”
Former Maryland linebacker Jermaine Carter, Jr.’s graduation and departure for the NFL at the end of last season left a void in the middle of the Terrapins’ defense. Carter, a three-time Honorable Mention All-Big Ten, started 37 games from 2015-2017, leading the team in tackles in three consecutive seasons.
Watson has filled Carter’s shoes admirably in his short time at College Park, leading the Big Ten and ranking ninth in the country with 6.6 solo tackles per game.
“There was a need there – and certainly I wasn’t around in the past – but I think he stepped in,” Canada said Tuesday. “Again, we talked about in the past about other guys who’ve transferred in. You come in, Tre’s worked his way in and earned the respect of the defense.
“I think he’s earned the respect of the team by the fact that he plays hard, works hard, practices hard, and then is making plays. We’re very fortunate he’s on our football team. He’s playing at a very high level. He’s not just stopping the run, he’s not just intercepting passes, he’s doing both very well. He’s a very important part of our defense.”
Watson’s ability to cover sideline to sideline has played a crucial part in a Maryland defense that leads the Big Ten in turnover margin and ranks top 5 in the conference in rush and pass defense. His impact on the field was captured perfectly in Maryland’s Oct. 13 game against Rutgers.
After missing the entire first half because of a targeting penalty the week before, Watson returned for the final 30 minutes and finished the game leading the team with 11 tackles in a 34-7 win over the Scarlet Knights.
His play in the final five games will be important for a Maryland team attempting to reach its first bowl game since 2016. The Terrapins sit at 4-3 entering Saturday’s game but still have games against AP Top 25 teams Ohio State and Penn State, as well as a matchup versus Michigan State.
“I certainly came in expecting to make an impact,” Watson said. “I didn’t come here to sit on the sideline or be a rotational guy. That’s just not my mentality. But being able to contribute is great. I came here wanting to help a football team win games and get to a place that I haven’t been in a really long time. And I feel like so far I’ve been able to help the team do that and that’s what matters at the end of the day.”