Path to big-time football was a long one for Huskies’ Watson

SEATTLE — For a guy who spent the first two years of his college football career playing in outposts like Weed, Calif., Burnaby, B.C., St. George, Utah, and Ellensburg, University of Washington cornerback Tre Watson sure doesn’t seem fazed by the prospect of facing the ninth-ranked team in the country this week.

Maybe that’s because stacking up against the best in the country has now become old hat for Watson.

The Central Washington University transfer got the first-game nerves out of the way against San Diego State, shook off the anxiety of facing a top-10 team at LSU and is starting to settle into his role as an NCAA Division I starter. Going from overlooked prep star to junior college to Division II to Pacific-12 Conference is no longer that big of a deal to Watson, even if the rest of us are still trying to figure out how the heck he made it this far.

“It wasn’t about playing at this level; it’s more about taking advantage of an opportunity,” Watson said last week, after a bye-week practice with the UW football team. “It wasn’t this magnificent thing I was planning on. Coach Sark (Steve Sarksian) gave me the opportunity, which I was thankful for, and I was going to make the most of it.”

Watson has done that and more since arriving at UW 14 months ago as a walk-on hopeful with little chance of ever actually seeing the field.

Having been mostly overlooked by Division I programs as a senior at Kennedy High School in Burien — Watson said an initial offer from Washington State eventually fell through, while programs from what used to be Division I-AA showed only marginal interest — the junior cornerback is finally fulfilling his dream as a Pac-12 starter.

And he remembers the moment when it all hit him.

“Game 1, San Diego State, there was the realization that it’s full-go now,” he said of the 2011 opener. “The first time I ever went out there in just my jersey (as a redshirt last year) was amazing, but going out there to play, that was really surreal.”

Watson often dreamed of playing football at UW as a kid, mostly when his family drove by Husky Stadium, but the remote possibility seemed as far off as Polaris when the school passed over him while filling out its recruiting class of 2009. Watson instead went to West Hills College in Coalinga, Calif., where he started 10 games at cornerback and returned kicks for a year before signing with Central Washington.

He was a full-time starter for an 8-3 team at CWU but somehow felt unfulfilled. As much as he loved the Wildcats and their standing as an NCAA Division II powerhouse, something inside of Watson told him that he was capable of playing Division I football.

“I had a good experience at Central,” he said last week, while standing on the UW practice field on a warm summer afternoon. “It just got to a point where, me personally, I had to be honest with myself. I had to take the next step.”

Watson said he didn’t reach out to Sarkisian until after he enrolled at UW, and initially he wasn’t entirely sure that he even wanted to keep playing football. When Sarkisian offered Watson a chance to try out for the team, he jumped at the chance and showed up for fall camp in August 2011.

Teammates immediately accepted the CWU transfer, and Watson spent his first season at UW helping the first offensive unit get ready for games while serving on the scout team.

But then an amazing thing happened when Watson showed up for spring ball. On a team that already had one starting cornerback in senior-to-be Desmond Trufant, and an experienced junior-to-be in Greg Ducre as well as up-and-comer Marcus Peters on the other side, Watson was actually being given a shot to start.

And then he went out and earned it.

So when the Huskies opened the 2012 season with a home game against San Diego State, Watson made his NCAA Division I debut as a starting cornerback. A week later, he went into the tiger’s den of LSU and got tested often by the nation’s third-ranked team — breaking up one pass in the end zone and getting beat on another.

No matter what happens on Saturdays, Watson is just happy to be playing at the highest level college football has to offer, whether that means going to LSU or hosting a top-10 team in Stanford this Thursday night.

He’s taken quite a unique path to Division I football, and Watson wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It was just a chance for me to grow,” he said last week. “If I had been able to go straight out of high school, would I have been able to really grasp this opportunity? Would I have just been here to be here? So I think, maybe I had to go to junior college to go to Central to get here.

“… I feel like we’re all different. We’ve all had our own paths. Just me in particular, I had to do what was best for me.”

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