Will Watson in action against the University of Regina in last weekend's Canada West playoff. Rich Lam / UBC Athletics
Will Watson has always been about the W’s.
And now the UBC Thunderbirds’ third-year receiver is stamping his initials all over the field as the guy who makes bulk grabs in big post-season games.
The end result? Why, of course, W’s.
On Saturday, the self-described anonymous grad of the White Rock Titans community program will look to continue building on a body of work that has helped the ‘Birds build a streak of five-straight playoff wins over the past two seasons as the University of B.C. faces the host Calgary Dinos (noon) in the Canada West’s Hardy Cup conference championship final.
“I still feel like I am an underdog and it definitely gives me motivation to show the rest of the country who I am and what I am able to do,” said Watson earlier this week, coming off last week’s stunning 40-34 conference semifinal win in Regina, where he torched the Rams with nine catches for 116 yards.
“Playing community football, I felt like I had to prove people wrong,” adds Watson, a Semiahmoo Secondary graduate who redshirted the 2013 season, then dressed but saw little action in 2014.
“But it’s nothing new for me.”
It says something about the depth of last year’s UBC receiving core that Watson remained somewhat in the background, despite leading the team in catches during the regular season with 42 and finished second with 507 yards.
And it didn’t help that over an up-and-down 3-5 regular season, the Thunderbirds offence really didn’t catch fire until the final few weeks of the campaign.
But the playoffs have been an entirely different animal.
In his five post-season games with UBC, all wins, he has made 35 catches for 507 yards. During last season’s four-game run to the Vanier Cup national title, he led the nation with 26 catches for 391 yards. Included in that run were seven catches for 131 yards in last season’s Hardy Cup win over Calgary, and then 12 catches for 171 yards in its national final win over the Montreal Carabins.
His arrival within the upper echelon of Canadian university receivers has also coincided with the increased role of responsibility placed on him by UBC head coach Blake Nill, who on Saturday sends Watson out to face the powerhouse Calgary team he rebuilt into a perennial national-title contender over a nine-season span before coming west last season.
“Look at our receiving core from the last play of the Vanier Cup to now and there are only two left,” said Nill, who after losing both Marcus Davis and Alex Morrison to injury, has only Watson and Trivel Pinto back from 2015’s primary rotation. Marshall Cook, Trey Kellogg and Trevor Casey have stepped up their roles within the group.
“Will probably found it a lot easier when Alex and Marcus were out there,” says Nill of the 5-foot-11, 190-pounder, “but when you become a focal guy, things change. He’s drawing a lot more attention now and that’s made his job more difficult. But he’s got a lot of natural skill and his hands are not an issue. He has a tremendous ceiling and we’re working with him to reach it.”
Watson spent the entire summer refining his route-running precision with quarterback Michael O’Connor, and his extra training sessions with the local Game Ready Fitness group allowed him to rub shoulders with some of the game’s greats.
In fact, at a Game Ready event this past Canada Day, connections within that group brought none other than New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to Vancouver.
“I saw him just standing there by himself so I walked up, introduced myself and asked if I could take a picture,” Watson says of the selfie that now adorns his Twitter page (@Will_Watson6).
“He catches everything and his hands are incredible,” he adds. “I pride myself on my ability to catch the football. That is for sure. Whether it’s routine, on the sidelines, one-handed. If my hands can touch it, I should be able to catch it. You can’t be a great receiver if you can’t catch it.”
That mantra has become Will Watson’s calling card, the one with the W’s stamped all over it.