Photo: Desmond Watson; Credit: Alex Shepherd
Desmond Watson has become a fan favorite in Gainesville, perhaps not so much for his play quite yet, but for his brand.
"Big Meat," so the listed-400 pound defensive lineman is called, exceeded expectations during his first season with the Florida Gators. Watson arrived at UF in January and immediately got to work with strength and conditioning coach Nick Savage to reduce his 432-pound frame upon enrollment.
Although he is still a physically intimidating football player to line up against at his size, his determination to get into better shape paid off. Watson appeared in every game for Florida during the 2021 season, consistently a member of special teams units with eight games played defensively, burning his redshirt year en route to seven tackles and half a sack across over 150 snaps.
"I feel like I used this year to get a little bit of experience, in the coming years I'll be good and ready to go," Watson told AllGators.
His first handful of snaps came in Week 1, taking the field against the Florida Atlantic Owls in The Swamp, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Watson was quick to make an impact, plugging a gap against the run and securing his first career tackle on his very first play.
"I had never been in front of a crowd like that, even though it wasn't a conference game, nothing like that," Watson explained. "But yeah, it was good. First tackle. It got me a little bit comfortable in the game, that was a good experience."
What led to that moment was months of dedication to Savage's plan for his development, something Watson says he will be "forever grateful for." It also required attention to detail within the Gators' defensive playbook, as Watson admits he struggled with the complexity of a college scheme before growing comfortable within it as the year went on.
"The playbook that we had was a little bit difficult. You know, in high school, nobody really has that, like, complex defense," Watson said. "That was a struggle for me at first but once I got it, I had it locked down.
"I made a lot of progress, but I've still got a ways to go for sure," Watson continued, regarding his work with Savage. "He always pushed me, gave me the same energy every day so I knew what to expect. I can tell that he wants the best of me. If I want the best for myself, he wants the best for me, all I've got to do is listen and I know I'm gonna get there."
Watson's drive and work ethic is bound to take him places. It will be tested in the near future, though, due to the nature of the college football business.
Savage, all but officially, will not return to UF next season amid the Gators' coaching changes. Following the firing of former head coach Dan Mullen and the hiring of Billy Napier to fill the role, Florida has brought in a new strength and conditioning coach who will also serve as associate head coach, that being Mark Hocke.
Losing Savage after enduring the dismissal of his defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, which preceded Mullen's firing by two weeks, was naturally tough for Watson to deal with in his first year of college. But Watson understands the nature of the game and the changes won't deter him from continuing to make progress.
"I hate to see anybody lose their job, but at the same time, I didn't commit to the coaches, I committed to the school," Watson said. "As I had seen throughout my recruitment, coaching changes happen all the time. So, that's something that you've got to be ready for, sometimes you can see it coming.
"I was disappointed that my coaches got fired, but it just comes with business so you've got to let it roll, keep going."
Considering that Napier has been on the job for just over one week, Watson has not had enough of an opportunity to bond with his new head coach. He trusts Napier's vision for the program, however, as his cousin, Kendre' Gant, played for Napier at Louisiana this past season after transferring from Independence Community College.
"I asked [Kendre'] about [Napier] and he said he's a good dude," Watson said. "I'm excited, I'm definitely excited. I'm always gonna put my trust in my coaches."
As Napier begins to rebuild the foundation of Florida's football program before spring practice, Watson, in the meantime, is redirecting some of his focus on Name, Image, and Likeness opportunities, looking to take advantage of the "Big Meat" brand that he's built over the last year.
Watson recently signed with Choice1 Management and is working with representative Chris Green, who he was referred to by a teammate. With Green's help, Watson is looking forward to becoming a household name at Florida and around the college football landscape.
That will not only require the expertise of an agent, but, as Watson emphasized, continual development in the strength and conditioning program and on the field.
With all of those factors in mind, Watson has a clear goal as he approaches his sophomore season: Earning a starting role, ideally next to rising junior defensive tackle Gervon Dexter, a tandem that Watson envisions as "something serious" along the Gators' defensive line.
"I just plan to keep progressing, get physically, mentally ready for next season. I plan on being a starter, I've got to work to be the starter at my spot," Watson said. "So, once I get there, after that just dominate and get my name out there for the future."
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