Gorman: For Watson, receiving is elementary
Justin Watson was a skinny sophomore worried about remembering routes and concentrating on catching passes when he decided to redefine himself as a receiver.
“I realized that you just weren't going to be open — you have to run good routes,” he said. “You have to make sure everything is crisp and sharp. Now, I have so much confidence. That's important as a receiver. Now, I worry about making yards after the catch.”
Now, the South Fayette senior is on the verge of breaking a WPIAL record.
Watson has 1,402 receiving yards and needs 144 yards to break the WPIAL single-season mark (1,545) for receiving yards, set by Carmen Connolly of Seton-La Salle in 2004.
That leads to an elementary equation for Watson. He knows if he breaks the record in the PIAA Class AA semifinal against Hickory on Saturday at Slippery Rock University, the Lions have a better shot of making into the state championship game in Hershey.
“I haven't worried about it too much,” Watson said. “I'm focused on winning, not stats, but it definitely would be an awesome achievement.”
One that Watson couldn't conceive at season's start. As a junior, he had 28 receptions for 592 yards and eight touchdowns while playing in the shadow of Zach Challingsworth, now a Pitt freshman.
Watson watched Challingsworth and tried to mirror his every move. This year, he has taken the reins of that leadership role and sets the example.
“You see him run a route, finishing and getting to the end zone in the 15th week of the season,” South Fayette coach Joe Rossi said. “He's full-tilt, full-go all the time. That's why he's so successful, because he's so driven.
“He's probably the best route runner we've seen. He has all the talent and tools. He's such a weapon. With our offense, we have one-on-one a lot because we spread it out and it's hard to bracket him.”
South Fayette showed just how hard in the WPIAL final at Heinz Field. Against an Aliquippa secondary featuring Dravon Henry, Watson had five receptions for 130 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown
“Obviously, it was a huge motivating factor all season long, to know I was going up against a guy who was getting so much attention and is such a great player,” Watson said.
“It's definitely a confidence booster, knowing that I was able to perform well against one of the best corners in the country. I've always had that confidence, to believe that I'm one of the elite receivers and will do well on the next level.”
Yet where South Fayette's Brett Brumbaugh is regarded as one of Western Pennsylvania's top quarterbacks (only 286 yards shy of setting the WPIAL single-season passing record), Watson rarely is mentioned as one of its top receivers.
“He wanted to show he's an elite receiver — we feel he's the elite receiver in the WPIAL — and teams have struggled to defend him,” Rossi said. “On that stage, in that game, he wanted to show he's the best in the WPIAL.”
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Watson runs the 40-yard dash in 4.48 seconds and had Mid-American Conference offers. Instead, he chose the Ivy League and picked Penn, where he plans to study economics at its acclaimed Wharton School of Business.
It should come as no surprise that Watson is good with statistics. Most impressive is that Watson's 1,402 yards have come on 62 receptions, with 20 scores. Connolly finished with 116 receptions in '04, and none of the state's top 10 single-season receiving yards leaders had fewer than 75 catches.
“They're very similar players, the way they catch the ball with their hands and attack the ball. They don't wait for the ball to come to them. They go get the ball,” said Seton-La Salle coach Greg Perry, who coached Connolly. “I don't know if there's a better football player at any level.”
The state record of 2,031 receiving yards, set by Kevin Gulyas of Allentown Central Catholic in 2011, is out of reach. Watson wants to leave his mark while leading the Lions to a state title.
“There's some pressure there, but I wouldn't want it any other way,” Watson said. “I want the state championship game to be in my hands.”
Why not? They're as good as any in WPIAL history.