In an offensive tackle class with a number of talented mid-round prospects, Florida State’s Menelik Watson might just be the one who stands to gain the most ground over the coming months. The 6-foot-6, 320-pound junior boasts tantalising athleticism and raw potential, yet it is highly unconventional path that led him to Tallahassee, Florida, which quite understandably has scouts most intrigued.
Growing up in Manchester, England, Watson was one of seven children raised by his single mother, in a household where there was little money even for food. Three of his brothers had already turned to crime and spent time and prison but, in sports, Watson saw a way out of the poverty that surrounded him.
An exceptionally gifted athlete, Watson took to soccer from an early age but it was during a basketball tournament in 2006 when he first caught the eye of Rob Orellana, head coach and founder of the Canarias Basketball Academy, a prep school team from Spain’s Gran Canaria Islands, which has produced numerous NCAA Division I and NBA players. Enamoured with the young Englishman’s rare athleticism, Orellana brought Watson to Spain in 2007, where he become a team captain and his coach’s prized asset, setting the tone with his work ethic and dedication to the game.
After two years at Canarias, Watson’s hard work was finally rewarded during a tour to the United States in 2009, when he impressed coaches at New York-based Marist College enough for them to offer him a full scholarship, without even having set foot on campus.
Things at Marist however did not go as well as planned. Watson redshirted his first year, while his debut season was by all accounts a disappointing one, in which the team went 6-27 and finished tied for last in the MAC Conference. The football programme did at the time enquire about Watson’s availability but the Englishman’s only experience of the sport up to that point had been through video games which his teammates had introduced him to.
It was Watson’s best friend on the basketball team however, fellow power forward Rob Johnson, who would first open his eyes to the idea of playing football. In September 2010, Johnson brought his friend down to Florida to visit his younger brother, Reggie, who was studying at the school Watson would coincidentally later call home, FSU, and, while they were there, to take in the Seminoles’ game against BYU.
Watson’s first experience of big-time college football immediately had him hooked and seemingly planted the seed of an idea in his mind. The next spring he called up Orellana, who in the time being had become like a father figure to him, to reveal that he was contemplating not returning to Marist. With little prospect of a pro basketball career in Europe, Orellana offered him two options: boxing or football – he was convinced the remarkably talented Watson could be a success in either.
To begin with, Orellana pushed the boxing option, introducing Watson to Roberto Alcazar, former trainer of Oscar De La Hoya, during a summer trip to California to visit relatives. Watson however wanted to pursue the junior college football route and, with further help from the two Johnson brothers, eventually managed to convince Mark McElroy, head coach at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California, to let him try-out for the team.
In August 2011, Watson put on football gear for the first time and immediately wowed the coaching staff with his rare combination of size and athleticism. Starting off on the d-line, he soon moved to offensive tackle at the request of future Oregon left guard, Kyle Long, who was starting at left tackle for Saddleback at the time and, though understandably needing time to learn the intricacies of the game, had made his way into the starting line-up by only week 4 of the season. Described as “like a sponge” by coach McElroy, Watson absorbed all the information which came his way and progressed at alarming speed, being named second-team all-conference by the season’s end and entertaining more than three dozen scholarship offers. There was only one however that Watson was ever truly interested in; that which came from Florida State, the school where, just over a year earlier, he had first been introduced to the enormity and spectacle of Division I football.
Their offensive line coach, Rick Trickett, was so impressed by Watson’s tape that he flew out to Saddleback in December and offered the junior college recruit a scholarship on the spot. Watson officially signed with Florida State in February 2012 and since then has continued his meteoric rise. Starting every game for the Seminoles at right tackle this past season, he allowed just one sack in the 12 games, paving the way for senior quarterback EJ Manuel to lead an offense which accumulated more than 6,500 total yards.
Watson also earned an all-ACC honorable mention for his play in 2012 and was arguably the team’s star lineman, yet his decision to declare early still comes as somewhat of a surprise. His need to support his family likely played a significant role but, with less than two years of football experience and only 20 games played, Watson would have hugely benefited from another year in school to hone his skills and grow more accustomed to the game. Considering his rapid progress thus far, it wouldn’t be at all outlandish to suggest that he may well have found himself first round picture in 2014, especially if the Seminoles had decided to move him over to the blind side.
As things stand though, Watson’s outstanding athleticism and potential should have NFL teams suitably intrigued and he will no doubt shoot up draft boards once he wows scouts at the combine and workouts. As we saw with Bruce Campbell a few years ago, any prospect capable of running a 4.7 40 at such a size is sure to attract interest, no matter how underwhelming their tape, and Watson will likely be no different.
Furthermore, unlike Campbell, the Florida State product has clearly displayed the acumen required to succeed at the next level and teams will no doubt hold such a trait in high regard when they scour their draft boards for the type of developmental projects which they believe could be moulded into legitimate NFL contributors.
Certainly, Watson has all the necessary tools to protect the quarterback’s blind side in the pros and if some team sees in him their left tackle of the future then one could conceivably envisage his named being called sometime on the second day of the draft. Moreover, with top tackle prospects Taylor Lewan and Jake Matthews both returning to school, players such as Lane Johnson and Oday Abosuhi could well see their value rise over the coming months, thus creating a potential opportunity for the likes of Watson, Justin Pugh and Dallas Thomas to establish themselves as genuine second round prospects.
As an older developmental prospect, at 25 years of age, some may try to hold that fact against Watson when it comes to draft day, though if Danny Watkins can be selected with the 23rd overall pick then there’s no reason why it should truly be a barrier to his stock. In all likelihood, the FSU prospect will be a top 100 pick in April, with the chance to climb even higher if he impresses during workouts, and UK fans should rightfully be excited about the prospect of seeing another English-born player make their mark on the league. After Penn State’s Jack Crawford was chosen by the Oakland Raiders in the fifth round in 2012, Watson should be the second player from Britain drafted in the past two years and this recent trend is hopefully a sign of things to come,as the NFL’s global appeal continues to grow.